A Guide to Antique Desks: Pull up Your Chair to a Piece of History

Antique Desk Hero

Adding an antique desk to your office at work or home can transform a run-of-the-mill space into a stately suite of productivity. Antique desks often feature impeccable craftsmanship and exceptional materials, making them a marvelous investment for those who are working to cultivate their antique furniture collection. At the same time, antique desks can also be highly versatile as workspaces for projects big and small.

If your office needs a new conversation piece, or if you simply love the artisanry of well-crafted furniture, this guide to antique desks can help you begin your search.

How to Identify an Antique Desk

Finding the right antique desk for your space can require a certain level of diligence, as poor restoration work and mediocre reproductions often foil the hunt. Our tips in identifying antique desks include:

Take Your Time

If you appreciate the beauty that comes with the age of antique desks, then you should also embrace the luxury of time when hunting down the right furniture for your collection. Take your time when perusing your options and research as much as you can about styles and maker’s marks before jumping into a purchase. Online auctions can be a great starting point, but you can also seek out antique desks in person so you can feel extra confident about their condition. 

Inspect Craftsmanship

Before the days of fast furniture, craftsmen would lavish incredible attention on the assembly of their wares. The evidence of this attention to detail can still be seen in many antique desks, including:

Dovetail Joints

These will be visible at the joinder points of your antique desk, for example, where the desk drawer front meets the sides. They can be spotted by their characteristically triangular shapes (purportedly shaped like a dove’s tail) that extend from one piece of wood and fit neatly into the adjoining piece. 

Maker’s Marks or Labels

These insignia, which can be secreted away in hidden areas of your antique desk, can relay important information about the maker and can serve as a point of research to help you date the piece. A caveat, though, in the case of an adhered label: if it seems too new, it might be a modern addition and thus might not prove the desk’s antique status. 

Handcrafted Imperfections

It might seem counterintuitive, but you should be reassured if your antique desk is not “perfect”: in addition to variations in wood types across your desk, irregularities in the dovetail joints or asymmetries in the desks overall footprint can serve as reminders of past eras when furniture was crafted not by machine but by hand. 

Common Antique Desk Styles

While the rudimentary form of the desk can be traced far back into antiquity, it was not until the rise of the Renaissance that specific furniture was crafted with writing in mind. During that era, writing surfaces combined with cabinet-like drawers or recesses to create a revolutionary workspace that would endure. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, desks took on new variations and forms, many of which can be divided into several popular collector categories: 

Antique Secretary Desks

The antique secretary desk has a history dating back to the seventeenth century. It originated within the French escritoire, or “small writing desk” that featured a surface that either pulled out or folded down to create a larger expanse for writing. These antique secretary desks could range in scale from the diminutive addition to a sitting room to a striking statement piece, like this splendid eighteenth-century William & Mary walnut escritoire.

The Roces - Legarda Escritorio Secretary Desk

Lot 35: The Roces-Legarda Escritorio Secretary Desk, Leon Gallery, Makai City, Philippines (8 September 2019), Est: ₱240,000- ₱312,000

A close-nailed leather-mounted travelling escritoire

Lot 122: A Close-Nailed Leather-Mounted Traveling Escritoire, Christie’s, The Netherlands (15 February 2005), Est: €12,000-€16,000

Antique Writing Desks

Beyond the popularity of the escritoire, other antique writing desk styles became trendy in the 18th century. One was the pedestal desk, which offered a substantial writing surface spread across two piers of multiple drawers below the desk extending to (or near to) the floor. The advantage of this pedestal form was that it allowed the user to tuck his or her legs underneath the desk for comfort while working, which is why this form is also sometimes referred to as a kneehole desk. The history of this style of desk stretched far into history, taking as its origins the Bureau Mazarin, designed for French Cardinal Mazarin in the second half of the 17th century.

Bureau Mazarin

An antique Louis XIV Bureau Mazarin (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Another was the bureau à gradin, an antique writing desk that featured built-in levels of smaller drawers along the back to store various materials. A celebrated variation of this antique writing desk style is the Carlton House desk, originally designed by George Hepplewhite for the English Prince of Wales. This stylish antique writing desk features tiered drawers that curve to hug the desk’s contour of the desk and extend along its lateral sides.

Louis XIV gilt-bronze mounted, tortoiseshell, brass, pewter and mother-of-pearl inlaid bureau mazarin; attributed to Nicolas Sageot

Lot 21: A Louis XIV gilt-bronze mounted, tortoiseshell, brass, pewter and mother-of-pearl inlaid bureau mazarin; attributed to Nicolas Sageot (1666-1731) (1666—1731,) Artcurial, Paris (16 December 2019),  Est: €200,000-€250,000

A CARLTON HOUSE DESK George III, circa 1790

Lot 416: English, 18th Century Carlton House Desk,  Sotheby’s, London, UK (21 March 2013) Est: £10,000-£15,000

Antique Roll Top Desks

Roll top desks, like the celebrated Desk of King Louis XV (1760-1769), came into popularity in the late 18th century as a modified form that blended the pedestal desk with the cylinder desk, which featured a curved door that could be pulled down to conceal the desktop. Roll top desks feature a tambour, or shutter, of flexible, wooden slats that retract vertically over the top of the desk. Revealed behind this tambour is both an expansive writing surface and quite often also smaller drawers inset into the back of the piece, like the Carlton House desk.

Gottlieb Wilhelm Hamann - The Rolltop Desk with Pedestals

Lot 311: Gottlieb Wilhelm Hamann – The Rolltop Desk with Pedestals Griesbach, Sotheby’s, Berlin (1 December 2016) Est: €80,000-€100,000 

Gustav Stickley 48-w Rolltop Desk c1902-1904

Lot 209: Gustav Stickley 48” w Rolltop Desk c1902-1904,  California Historical Design, Inc., Alameda, CA (21 March 2020) Est: $7,500-$9,000

A Large Louis XV-Style Gilt Bronze-Mounted Bureau a Cylindre, 21st century 58-3 desk

Lot 61054: A Large Louis XV-Style Gilt Bronze-Mounted Bureau a Cylindre, 21st Century,  Heritage Auctions, Dallas, TX (25 February 2017) Est: $6,000-$8,000

Antique School Desks

One of the more modern desk forms to be created, the antique school desk was developed in the 1880s in response to the growing popularity of communal school education and the need to accommodate children efficiently. Ohio designer John Loughlin is often credited with envisioning the first school desk that mounted a writing surface on to the back of a bench seat. These antique school desks revolutionized the early days of public education and became the root for innovative modernist school desk design into the 20th century. 


JEAN PROUVÉ - School desk

Lot 59: Jean Prouvé School Desk,  Phillips, New York (19 September 2017) Est: $2,000-$3,000

ARNE JACOBSEN Antique School Desk

Lot 227: Arne Jacobsen,  Christie’s, London (5 June 2007) Est:£800-£1,500


Lot 2081: New England Painted Pine Country School Desk, Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers, Columbus, OH (30 January 2015) Est:$1,500-$2,500

Tapping Into the Modern Antique Desk Market

The beauty of seeking out an antique desk for your space is that you can choose from so many different styles and shapes. Whether you want a stately antique rolltop desk or a smaller antique secretary to stash in your corner, the antique desk market has a myriad of options for you. Prices can vary substantially depending on the condition and age of the antique desk you seek, but regardless, you can be sure that when you invest in an antique desk you are pulling up a chair to a piece of history.

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