The Case of the Missing Locks

A little while ago, I was browsing an auction catalog when I came across an absolutely gorgeous tiger maple chest-on-chest. If you aren’t familiar with this form, it’s a very tall chest of drawers consisting of an upper case and lower case. In the 18th century, the English held fast to this stately form while the Americans were busy going nuts for the elegant and elevated alternative, the highboy (or high chest). Although it wasn’t as popular here as in England, American cabinetmakers did also make the chest-on-chest form (here’s a really nice one). And according to the auction catalog, I was looking at a prime example.

Newport Chest on Chest

Here’s a breathtaking Newport chest on chest at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston–this one has a bonnet top but they can also have flat tops, as did the one in the auction catalog.

It’s not often that a perfectly proportioned, beautifully grained, period chest of drawers in perfect condition appears at auction in California. So, needless to say I was excited to check it out. Undeterred by minor problems—like: I don’t have anywhere in my house to put a large chest of drawers, or, How will I even get this thing home?—I happily drove up to the auction house anyway.

It was right there in the front of the auction room.  The lady helping me register didn’t seem to respond to my sense of urgency, but finally I was checked in, and I made a restrained-mad-dash to the chest. It was absolutely beautiful. Tiger maple, if you aren’t familiar, is so named because the wood grain pattern has alternating stripes of light and dark. Sometimes the contrast can be subtle, and other times extremely bold. A talented cabinetmaker will position the boards artfully so that the stripes create a pleasingly decorative effect and a harmony with the overall design. This chest was a fairly boldly-grained example, and very well executed. Before beginning a close examination, I was already enamored with the proportions, design, and appearance of quality.

tiger maple grain on a chest of drawers

An example of the characteristic striping of tiger maple

Next, I started my basic rundown of the details: pulling out the drawers to look at the construction, examining closely the front, sides, back, top, and feet of the chest, checking the brasses for evidence of replacement, etc. I found a lot of good signs, checking them off my mental list, one by one:

– Are the drawer and case construction methods appropriate for the fourth quarter of the 18th century, including use of handmade dovetails? Yup.

– Do the drawer dovetails of the upper case match those of the lower case? Yup.

– Is there evidence of hand tools on unfinished surfaces, especially the boards forming the back of the case? Yup.

– Do the unfinished back boards exhibit oxidation consistent with a 240 year old piece? Yup.

– Are there any unexplained holes or evidence of modern tools? Nope.

– And so on, and so on…

But I quickly noticed something unsettling: there were no locks. There were brass escutcheons with keyhole cutouts in them, but they were just decorative. There were no actual keyholes, and no actual locks. And no evidence that there had ever been locks in any of the drawers. (To put a lock mechanism in the drawer, you have to cut out quite a large chunk of wood to fit it in, so it would be quite obvious if the locks were simply gone.) They weren’t just gone. They were never there. Now, you may be saying to yourself—so what? Why is a lack of locks suspicious?

locking drawer

Here’s what a drawer with a lock mechanism looks like. The escutcheon on this drawer is both decorative AND functional–see how there really is a keyhole behind the brass?

In the 18th century, locking furniture was a common form of security—for those who could afford to own things of value in the first place, that is. On a large chest of drawers like this, we would expect to find that at least some of the drawers lock. Now, locks themselves were expensive too, so it’s not uncommon to find that some of the drawers on a case piece lock and some of them don’t. Another device that you’ll find is a mechanism whereby one or more drawers is locked with a small piece of wood that sticks out of the drawer bottom, preventing the drawer from sliding out. Only by opening the drawer below it and reaching up to depress this “spring lock” tab, can you slide the drawer out. This allows you to lock two or more drawers while only purchasing one metal lock and key (clever!).

If locks were so expensive, you say, maybe the original owner of this chest couldn’t afford them or didn’t want to bother with the expense. It’s possible. But in every other way, this large piece of case furniture with choice wood specimens and high quality construction suggested a hefty original price tag from the cabinetmaker. If you could afford this chest, I would imagine you could afford a few locks for it.

Once my suspicions were arisen, another damning detail became apparent. I was so enamored with the chest and impressed by its condition that I failed to consider at first—it might actually be too well-preserved…

First, the feet were absolutely pristine, as was the rest of the piece. This was somewhat suspicious, as the feet on such a heavy piece of case furniture are bound to take a bit of a beating over 200+ years. The feet get accidentally kicked (or in modern times, bumped with a vacuum cleaner if you aren’t careful!) When the piece is moved, the feet get dragged or bumped—and, especially if careless, even broken. But these feet looked like they were made yesterday. The beautifully dovetailed corners were sharp as a razor—as was every other corner on the piece.

And it wasn’t just the corners that lacked wear—the finished surfaces on the whole piece were absolutely perfect. Not even a gentle warping of the wood, not a crack in the wide boards used for the case sides. And the surfaces as smooth as glass. One of the neat features of old tiger maple is that you can actually feel the stripes if you run your fingers over the surface. The dark and light stripes in the wood shrink at different rates, so 200 years later the surface isn’t perfectly smooth anymore. Except, here it was. Now, it’s possible that someone sanded the heck out of it during a recent refinishing job. The experts (who don’t even like to use the term refinishing!) know how to conservatively refresh a tired old finish, without destroying 200 years of patina with sandpaper. But perhaps this chest had an overzealous restorer. It’s possible. Doesn’t explain the sharp corners and lack of cracks or warping though. Was it tucked away in some basement with constant temperature and humidity for 200 years? And if so—why did it need drastic refinishing?!

Ultimately, you have to use multiple lines of evidence to decide whether a piece is “right” or not. And for this chest, gorgeous as it was, I just wasn’t feeling it.

I struck up a conversation with a man who was examining the chest and muttering suspicions to his friend. “There aren’t any locks,” I offered. “Don’t you find that odd?” It turned out he was a long-time dealer from the midwest, out here on a trip to buy antiques and visit his friend. And he personally collects antique tiger maple furniture. We had a great conversation about the piece, and ultimately decided we agreed it was a fake (to be fair, I was probably 80% sure until the experienced dealer told me he was 100% sure… and then I was 100% sure). Needless to say, he was as bummed out as I was.

Disappointed with the auction, I met up with a friend for lunch nearby.  On our way back to the car, we walked past a little antique and vintage shop and decided to have a look. I struck up a conversation with the owner, who wanted to know what sort of things I collected. When I told him that I was into early American furniture (with the requisite “yea, yea, I know I’m on the wrong coast for that!”), he got excited. Turns out he’s a transplant from New England himself. “You didn’t happen to go to the auction up the street today, did you?” he asked as he pulled out a flyer with photos of the day’s offerings. “I just came from there, actually,” I said. He lit up and pointed to the flyer: “Did you see this tiger maple chest of drawers?” “I did, yea…but in my opinion, it’s a fake.” I was curious to hear his thoughts, but he hadn’t been able to get away from the shop to go see it in person.

“A fake?! Wow, tell me about it!” We had a grand time going over the piece in our minds, as I told him about what I thought was right and wrong. In the end, he agreed with my suspicions. And I made another new friend. Despite coming home empty-handed, it was really a fun day of collaborative sleuthing. Sounds like an unwritten Nancy Drew furniture adventure: The Case of the Missing Locks.

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