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A Primer on Fine American Antique Furniture

By Lyn Sack Wall for Sack Heritage Group

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Furniture Masterpiece - Fine American Antique Furniture

Philadelphia masterpiece card table

-Courtesy of Sack Heritage Group
In 1905, my grandfather, Israel Sack, established a family business specializing in fine American antique furniture. He recognized the beauty and value of fine furniture crafted in the early years of our country. Sack Heritage Group still specializes in the fine furniture produced in the Colonies from the last quarter of the 17th through the first quarter of the 19th centuries.

An Overview of the Fine American Furniture Periods

There are many periods of antique furniture, and the table illustrated here proves an important point: different periods and styles of antique furniture often overlap. Cabinetmakers did not stop making Queen Anne furniture on December 31, 1749 and start making Chippendale furniture on January 1, 1750.

Each period influences the style of its successors, as shown in this piece. The finely crafted shell carving on this desk often adorned Queen Anne style furniture while claw-and-ball feet are prevalent in the Chippendale style. And then you have cabriole legs, which were used extensively in both Queen Anne and Chippendale styles.

Looking at the way styles meld together often provides a clue to the age of antique furnishings. The major periods can be broken down rather simply:

Colonial period

  • Colonial and Jacobean: 1620 – 1720
  • Queen Anne: 1720 – 1750
  • Chippendale: 1750 – 1780
  • Federal period

  • Hepplewhite: 1780 – 1800
  • Sheraton: 1790 – 1810
  • Classical: 1810 – 1820
  • Windsor is another style that does not fall into a specific time frame. However, in the context discussed here, it usually falls in to the last half of the 18th century. Windsor pieces, along with those of other often-imitated styles, must be examined closely with an eye for quality to determine exactly when they were produced.

    Valuing Fine American Furniture

    Regardless of the period or category and item falls into, my grandfather learned long ago that it takes more than being old to determine the value of an antique. Not only must an item be of high quality, it must have artistic merit to command attention worthy of a high price.

    My uncle, respected antique dealer Albert Sack, describes measures of quality in his most recent book, The NEW Fine Points of Furniture - Early American. This sequel to his first book, The Fine Points of Furniture - Early American, both from Crown Publishers, was the first book on antique furniture to evaluate the quality of each type by comparing good, better and best. In his latest book, he expands the categories to include superior and masterpiece. These terms are defined as follows:

  • Good - mediocre at best.
  • Better - items crafted by good or fine craftsmen but with a weakness either in proportion, design or workmanship.
  • Best - produced by a superior craftsman and is worthy of the most discriminating collection.
  • Superior - executed with extreme beauty and quality. Some superior pieces are masterpieces and all masterpieces are superior.
  • Masterpiece - beauty and quality that transcends the bounds of the era or even the field of art it represents.
  • As my uncle explains, these concepts can be applied to any decorative art form including antique period furniture, and are important to consider when determining the value of individual pieces.

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