A 1940s 'Honest' Reproduction?By Fred Taylor
A 1940s 'honest' Reproduction?
A visit to a very reputable local antiques dealer turned up what appeared to be a real gem of a Hepplewhite tambour desk. Sitting among a large collection of fine period furniture, it would be easy for the uninitiated or casual buyer to accept the desk as the real thing. Especially given the sterling reputation of the dealer.
The new desk is a Colonial Revival piece, an honest reproduction made by Maddox Furniture in the 1940s. It is shown below, along with a period Hepplewhite piece made in Massachusetts, ca. 1790-1810. But can you immediately spot the differences?
The similarities are amazing. Each is 36″ wide, 42″ high and 20″ deep. Each has crotch mahogany drawer fronts and light colored inlaid stringers. Overall colors are very similar and the tambour doors have virtually identical dimensions and characteristics.
The first obvious clue of the recent vintage of our desk is the type of hinge used on the folding leaf. Maddox's reproduction uses a modern hinge called a Soss hinge, or concealed hinge (Fig. 3). When the leaf is opened, the hinge is not visible from the top side. However, with the leaves closed, the three Soss hinges across the front of the desk are visible from across the room (Fig. 4).
Hinges on period versions of the desk are concealed when the leaves are closed. Typical old hinges are butt hinges or knife hinges. Butt hinges (Fig. 5). are not seen when the leaves are opened because they would have been hidden by a felt or leather covering. Knife hinges (Fig. 6) are on the ends of the leaves and do not show when looking straight at the leaves, open or closed.
Next look at construction details in the drawer. The new dovetail pins and tails are all small and exactly equal, a sure sign of modern machine cutting (Fig. 7). Older dovetail joints cut by hand are two to five times larger and are unequal in size.
The new dovetails also reveal the drawer front is build up of five thin sections, or plys, of wood rather than solid. How can you tell? Look closely at the dovetails. You'll see a thin light band (black arrow, (Fig. 7) of one of the plys in the joint.
Small interior drawers are made from a similar three-ply wood panel. The inside shows a nice, flat cut Honduran mahogany bottom (Fig. 9). But the outside of the bottom panel is bright colored poplar (Fig. 10). While we had the drawers out, a quick look at the drawer pull screws left no room for doubt about the age of the hardware. The mass produced machine cut screws had a bright finish with no sign of age (Fig. 8).
All of these clues were seen in less than 3 minutes examination. None of them were concealed but they might not be so obvious to the uninformed or careless.
Editor's Note: Handmade furniture from the 1920s-50s like this desk is generally good quality and collectible in its own right. However, don't confuse these pre-1950 pieces with the poor quality period reproduction furniture from Indonesia currently flooding the market.
Typical Old Hinge
The most typical original hardware on a period Hepplewhite desk of this style would be butt hinges or knife hinges. Both styles are mortised into the wood so the metal is flush with the surrounding surface. Note that when the leaf is closed, the original hinges are hidden. Old butt hinges would typically be covered with felt or leather to conceal them when the leaf is open. But don't judge age by hinges alone. Reproduction hinges in old styles or genuinely old hinges from damaged pieces can be added to new furniture. Consider all the features before making a judgement as to age.