It is relatively frequent to see ‘marriages’ within furniture of the 18th & 19th centuries (read more on our blog post on marriages and how to avoid them here) and much has been written about how to spot when an item has been ‘made up’ from two or more existing components. Less often, however, are we warned of a ‘divorce’ (when an item has been split) and how to spot this.
Two part furniture has always been prone to separation. During the 18th century when estates were sold, chest on chests, linen presses and the like were often divided, to fit into their new, often smaller homes. On the death of a family member, furniture was literally divided between the heirs, with the same results. Inevitably sections also simply get lost over the years, as they pass through many various auction houses and homes.
So what clues that an item was formerly part of a larger piece should we look for? An obvious one is a chest of drawers that was the upper or lower section of a tallboy. Things to look out for here include three small drawers along the top row of the chest; these were predominately only seen on tallboys, and so would indicate ‘divorce’. Another thing to look closely at is the moulding along the top of the piece – traditionally a moulding on a chest of drawers will taper upwards, whereas this is reversed on a tallboy, with the cornice flaring out at the top.
Another item falling prey to separation are bureau bookcases. A bureau intended to take a cabinet will usually have a steeper fall than one made to stand alone – allowing plenty of room on the top for the cabinet, and so a steep fall on a bureau should raise alarm bells. One final example to look out for are library bookcases. Often the centre section was separated from its flanking ends, creating a single glazed bookcase cabinet or secretarie. To spot this, look at the cornice and plinth of the piece – the corners should be mitres, and not run flush with the edge of the piece.
Of course these ‘clues’ are just guidelines; with antiques there are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes you need to trust your instinct.