Miniature Serpentine Chest, ca. 1815

Value (2012) | $6,000 Auction$9,000 Auction

My wife and I were traveling across the country and we stopped at a show and we collect dolls, and this is, we thought, a miniature chest, that would fit in our collection. I was told by the dealer that it dated around 1815.

Okay, so you bought it in a show; where was that?

Cedar Falls, Iowa.

And did the dealer give you any inclination as to where this chest was made?


Okay, it's a lovely chest. It would be from the Federal period, and it is from the mid-Atlantic states. I think you can probably narrow the range down to the Philadelphia area. Based on the shape of the apron down here, it's beautifully arched with that little spur in the middle. The serpentine front, and another feature that's typical of mid-Atlantic states cabinetmaking, which is a thrifty way to be able to lock the drawers, is what's known as the Quaker lock or the spring lock, which is shown right here on the underside. And that meant that they didn't have to spend the money on a mechanical lock in order to secure the top two drawers. The other nice feature about this chest is that it happens to have its original cast brass hardware. And the banding on the drawers.

Why would this have been made?

That's a good question. It might have been an apprentice piece. Some people refer to these as salesman samples, but around 1800, this was all bespoke furniture. My hunch is that based on the way the sides are put together out of lots of small pieces of wood...and they used white pine secondary that has knots in it. This may have been an after-hours piece done by an apprentice, but one of the things that the person did do, whether it was an after-hours piece or done by a master craftsman, was to perfectly reduce the proportions from a full-sized chest down to a miniature. If this were a full-sized tiger maple serpentine front chest, it wouldn't be worth as much. So in this case, a smaller piece is worth more than the full-size piece.


How much did you pay for this chest?

Something over $2,000.

From a condition standpoint, it has small patches to some of the feet, but probably the most egregious problem is that it was heavily refinished at some point. If I were to bring this to auction today, I would put $6,000 to $9,000 on it.


But if it were in an older state, dirtier, drier, grungier surface you'd be looking at maybe $15,000 to $20,000.

Well, I didn't touch it, but somebody obviously did. Phew!

Appraisal Details

Nye and Company
Bloomfield, NJ
Appraised value (2012)
$6,000 Auction$9,000 Auction
Rapid City, SD (July 14, 2012)
Brass , Wood

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