A 1741 Carved and Painted, Fraktur-inscribed Bible Box In Nashville
By Marshall L. Fallwell Jr., ASA
Antique furniture with intact original painted decoration is very scarce. Painted 250-year-old furniture, with elaborate wrought-iron strapwork and original locks, and with carved decorations and inscriptions which date and identify its origins, is downright rare. Furthermore, a piece with all these characteristics plus its original key, and in a relatively uncommon form — “Bible box” or “strongbox” — is extremely rare. Finally, something with all the goodies listed above, but also of credible American origins, would be super rare.
As it happened, I examined a Bible box displaying just such rare attributes at the GasLamp’s May 2010 Appraisal Fair. One inscription dates the piece to “ANO 1741,” while a second, carved in Old German or Fraktur lettering, could suggest either European or American origins. If American, its value would skyrocket.
However, the original key went missing years ago, so the box, with something heavy inside (a family Bible, say the owners), had been shut tight until the lock was recently jimmied by one Omri Porat of Abbey Locksmiths in New York. Omri agreed that the lock was original and very old, although it had been “worked on” a bit.
Beautifully carved portraits of a blond man and woman in 18th century garb on the front panel, a date (1741), and an as yet undeciphered Fraktur inscription are typical of “dower chests.” But measuring only 10.5-inches high by 20.5-inches wide by 19-inches deep, our box is much smaller than most dower chests. So, subject to a definitive reading of the Fraktur inscription, I’ll call it a “Bible box” if for no other reason than it had a Bible in it.
So, at the end of that rainy day in May, I and its owners were left with a plausibly intact 250-year-old carved and painted “Bible box” with iron strapwork and original lock, and with carved provenance as old as the box itself. The original key is missing, however, and American origins seem unlikely. Pretty good.
I suggested that the owners perform a wood analysis to determine whether it is an American species, which would be lucky indeed. Then chemical analyses could be conducted to discover modern ingredients not expected in mid-18th century paint.
Finally, I suggested that the owners arrange for Leigh Keno (of “Antiques Roadshow” fame) to examine the piece more thoroughly. Which is exactly what happened. I spoke with Mr. Keno on June 16; he graciously concurred with most of the points of rarity listed above in the first paragraph, although he prefers to call our box a “strongbox” and “European,” not American. Whatever it is, it’s scheduled to be auctioned in October (see http://www.kenoauctions.com/).
Anyone out there read Fraktur?
Text and photographs © 2010 Marshall Leigh Fallwell Jr.
Marshall L. Fallwell Jr., ASA, is a Senior Member of the American Society of Appraisers, appraising and consulting in antiques, art and other types of personal property.