Unholy Matrimony – "Married" Antique Furniture

Unholy Matrimony – "Married" Antique Furniture

Opinions vary on the appeal of "married" antique furniture pieces. Some say they are built to deceive; some say that a good marriage makes a piece more useful; others say that married pieces keep orphaned components from becoming firewood. But all antique dealers agree on one point: married case-good pieces are never worth the price of an unaltered original. So, it pays for an antique furniture shopper to know how to identify these items.

For those not familiar with the term, married furniture pieces are double-cased items that have been assembled from pieces that were not originally a matched set. Marriages may consist of two older pieces, or an old and a newer piece. Common examples might include a buffet-and-hutch, a chest-on-chest, and a desk-and-bookcase. Poorly executed marriages are sometimes referred to as "failed marriages" or "unholy matrimony".

Manufacturers of furniture case goods typically make large furniture in two pieces for easier delivery. Over the years components may become separated; shoppers might find a desk with no bookshelf or a buffet with no hutch. Sometimes, dealers and restorers who possess two closely-matched orphaned components will make minor modifications to the pieces so that when assembled they appear to be an original set. Joining two such pieces often brings a higher price and faster turnover than if the two items were sold separately. Seldom are two mis-matched new pieces married, because the resulting low price makes the effort of such a union pointless.

Analyzing married pieces is not convenient in either retail or auction settings. Such pieces are large and designed to be placed up against a wall. Shelves with doors are a convenient place to display glassware and such, and sellers are not shy about using them for display purposes. Unless a seller is willing to remove all breakables from a unit and move it away from the wall for inspection, you should walk away. Furniture backs may tell a story that the front doesn't tell.

If you have full access to all sides of a unit, then proceed with an inspection by analyzing an item's styling, construction, finish, and hardware. Let's examine these points individually.

Styling

Step back from the front of the unit and take a good, long look. There should be a consistency in the overall period styling of the piece. Does anything in particular seem out of place? Is the top proportional to the base, or does it seem too wide, deep, or tall? Does the top look like it could fall over if it was loaded? Do the drawer and door facings match on both pieces? Do the top and bottom drawers and doors slide and close in the same fashion?

Construction

A single cabinet may be made from many different species of wood. When we describe a cabinet as being made of oak, mahogany, cherry, walnut, and so on we are describing the unit's primary (visible) wood. Secondary woods are those used in rarely seen areas such as interior drawers and veneer substrates. Primary and secondary woods should be consistent in both the top and bottom sections. Mahogany tops should have a mahogany base, and so on.

Not only should the species of wood be the same on primary surfaces, but the wood grain and color should be a match. It's not necessary to "know your woods" in order to tell if the wood is the same from top to bottom; your eyes will tell you. If the grain pattern repeats and the color is close to being the same (some fading is common) then the primary wood is likely a match. The attached wood database graphic provides some clues for wood grain matching.

Secondary woods give the best clues as to whether a piece is original or a marriage. Cabinets that are built to be a matched set will generally (but not always) use the same types of secondary woods. Even if the secondary woods are not consistent by species, the sides and bottoms will have been planed to the same thickness. Also, drawer glides and door hardware will be the same on both pieces.

Joinery (how the joints are assembled) will be consistent from top to bottom. The time-tested standard for drawer joinery is dovetails, whether hand-cut or machine-cut. Regardless of the method employed, the joinery should be the same on top and bottom drawers and doors. Some dealers will represent joinery differences as being the result of hand-craftsmanship; that's not true. In pre-industrial era furniture shops maintained a specialized division of labor. Drawers were cut by one person, tops planed by another, and so on. Shops were more efficient when there was a specialization, and the results show in the finished product.

Back panels, moldings, and carvings will match top to bottom. Also, tooling marks on hand-built furniture - scribe marks on the drawer dovetails, chisel marks, saw patterns, planing irregularities - will be apparent on both pieces.

Finish

Over the years, wood finishes have changed as much as other industrial materials and methods. The quality and consistency of a cabinet's finish is the final mark of a quality piece. Generally, antique dealers are terrible refinishers. As any professional finisher will attest, finishing is a time-consuming job that requires skill and patience. Few antique dealers will spend the time or money to do the job properly, because refinishing eats up all their profit on an item.

A close look at the finish can tell you how much repair work was done, and where it was done. Finishing does not hide defects, it magnifies them. Matched, original pieces will have been finished the same way and have same degree of fading and cracking. Completely refinished pieces will look new, not old.

If wood grain can be clearly seen on one section but is muddy-looking on another, the finish has likely been shaded with toning lacquer. That applies side-to-side as well: if the grain on one side of a top or bottom is clear and the other muddy, the piece was probably exposed to sunlight for long enough to fade a section of the finish, and toning spray was used to "bring back" the color.

A cabinet's surface should display the same patina on all exposed surfaces and the same degree of oxidation (discoloration) on interior surfaces. Dealers who attempt to pass off married pieces as original will often forget to age the inside of drawers and cabinet frames: one section will appear old, the other new.

Hardware

Drawer pulls, hinges, and knobs will match. Drawer pulls will be the same size top to bottom. Remove one drawer pull on each section and inspect the finish under the pull. Pulls that have been in place for decades will leave a visible indentation in the finish. The pull you have removed should perfectly fit this indentation; there should be no sign that the pulls were replaced. Of course, replacing drawer pulls is common on very old cabinets because they are often brass and will become brittle with age and break. But, new pulls should be an exact match for the old ones.

Fasteners - nails and screws - should be the same throughout the piece. Flat, stamped nails in one section and round wire nails in the other is proof that the pieces are either married or improperly repaired.

Final words

The above inspection procedure should tell you what you need to know about married pieces. Married cabinets can be an excellent addition to a home if they are priced right. If the pairing has been well-conceived and well-executed, then you may enjoy and attractive and useful cabinet for decades to come.

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