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What to look for when buying an antique or vintage bureau


First appearing in the 17th century, the bureau can be considered one of the earliest types of writing furniture, and, as a precursor to the traditional desk, typically featured a sloping, drop-down writing surface. Early examples were free-standing and had gate legs as supports for the drop-down slope. By the 18th century, however, the writing bureau section was combined with a chest of drawers beneath it, and the gate leg supports had been replaced by sliding pull out loppers which were of a more practical design. Often, the writing desk could be lifted away and separated from this chest of drawers and it was this new form of the bureau that most closely resembles what we understand a bureau to be today.

Early bureaux featured mouldings to the front of the dust boards and were made using exotic wood veneers such as burr walnut. They also often had feather or cross banding decoration and inlays. Many Georgian bureaux, which were usually made from oak or mahogany, had beading on the drawers while Victorian and Edwardian pieces were often mahogany, inlaid with highly decorative floral designs.

Interesting design details which are often associated with an antique bureau are:

Pigeonholes – many bureaux had pigeon holes within for storing documents.
Drawers – these can usually be found in the interior and were for storing stationery items.
Bible wells – designed to hold the family bible.
Secret compartments – these were sometimes incorporated into the bureau’s design for the concealment of jewellery and other valuables.

When buying an antique bureau there are certain things to look out for which will help the novice collector to identify a genuine antique or vintage piece. These include the dovetail detailing to pull out drawers which indicate an item is handmade. The earlier the piece, the larger the dovetails tend to be as few early craftspeople would have benefitted  from the experience of an apprenticeship under a master craftsman. Conversely, top quality pieces will feature dovetails of finer proportions where the master cabinet makers would have wanted to display their skills. As time went on, dovetails were gradually phased out with modern pieces being nailed or even glued together.

The hardware on a drawer can be very telling when trying to ascertain if a bureau is antique or vintage. An antique drawer pull or handle will have a threaded post and a nut. If there is the top of a screw visible, it might indicate that the hardware at the very least is newer. It also follows that the piece of furniture may not be authentic as few people would add new handles to an antique piece.

Other telltale signs to look for are the materials used. If the back of your bureau has been made from plywood, it is unlikely to be antique, as plywood was not used in furniture production until 1930. If your bureau has been veneered, the thicker the veneer the older the piece tends to be, as veneers were hand-sawn well into the 19th century, resulting in a course cut. As technology and mechanisation improved, veneers became increasingly thinner. Early veneers were always glued down  with animal glue and were finished off (sanded and polished) in situ.

If an antique bureau has survived through the centuries, it may have undergone (inevitable) restoration. Do not let this put you off though, as experts consider ‘honest restoration’ an acceptable part of a piece of furniture’s journey. An example of honest restoration may be replacement veneer. However, restoration that has not been declared or that has been carried out with a view to deceiving potential buyers is never acceptable. Examples of the kind of ‘restoration’ that could prove a piece is not genuine can be found in our blog 5 valuable tips for buying and selling antique furniture.

In recent contemporary times, with the arrival of the desk-top PC, the writing bureau seemed to fall out of fashion and has been much undervalued as a piece of antique furniture. Today, with an increase in the use of laptops and mobile devices, the bureau may begin to curry favour once again, not only as a functional piece of furniture, but also as a focal point in a room. An antique bureau can be the perfect piece to bring a room together and can be a practical alternative to a desk or simply a conversation piece. At Hemswell Antique Centres, you can find your perfect antique or vintage bureau whether you’re looking for an ornate 17th century piece or an early 20th century example, and buying from our reputable dealers means that if you are at all unsure of the age of a piece, it can be authenticated for you. If you have seen an antique bureau online that you would like to view more closely, please contact us and we can arrange for a short video to be made of the item and sent to you via email or Whatsapp. 


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