A buyer's guide to antique desks, bureaux and writing tables.
When you start looking for an antique desk you will discover they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes with different terminology to match.
The earliest type of antique desk was a bureau; this was originally raised on a stand but at the turn of the Eighteenth Century this merged with a chest of drawers to create a bureau as we know it today. The antique Queen Anne bureau below is a very early example which has been made in two sections; the writing desk can be lifted off the chest of drawers.
A later example of an antique bureau is this Georgian piece veneered in mahogany. Antique bureaux are currently one of the most under valued pieces of antique furniture, they fell out of fashion with the advent of desk top computers. However I expect their value to rise as we now tend to use laptops or ipads. They were originally far more expensive than an antique chest of drawers due to the extra work in their construction and they can offer a highly decorative focal point to a room especially if displayed open.
In the mid Eighteenth Century two new forms of desk became fashionable. The first of these was the the writing table. An antique writing table has a writing surface above frieze drawers and is raised on legs. Illustrated below is a fine Regency example which is veneered in rosewood and inlaid with brass.
The other new form of antique desk was a partners' desk which takes its name from the fact that it was frequently used in law offices with a clerk sitting on one side and a partner on the other. An antique partners' desk has the writing surface raised up on pedestals which will usually contain drawers on one side and a cupboard on the other. The earliest Chippendale partners desks are highly sought after and the finest examples are among the most expensive English furniture sold at auction. The antique partners' desk illustrated below is a fine William IV example.
When buying a partners' desk it is important to actually sit at the desk. Many desks have too narrow or too low a kneehole for comfort. You should then consider the desk's quality, finer examples will have mahogany drawers linings and crisp mouldings and the cabinet-maker may even have used an interesting cut of mahogany to veneer the drawers. The French example illustrated below is of the finest quality and is veneered in amboyna with tulipwood inlay.
There is one final type of desk to consider, the Davenport, which became fashionable in the Sheraton period (1780-1800). The name is thought to derive from a Captain Davenport who may have commisisioned the first example. An antique Davenport has a sloping desk above a case of drawers; an early Davenport like the piece illustrated below has a desk that pulls forward to create a kneehole and an ink and pen drawer that pulls out. Later Nineteenth Century examples have a fixed writing slope and are known as piano top davenports.