Drop-front secretary desks have been a staple of classic decor for centuries. Also known as drop-lid desks, these desks were used by esteemed writers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Thomas Jefferson, to store and organize their belongings. The hinged lid allows easy access to papers or other items stored inside while protecting them from dust or unwanted eyes.
They had a big competitor throughout the ages: the roll-top desk. Roll-top desks were much more famous for their versatility and convenience, but drop-front secretary desks have held their popularity fast over the years.
Drop-front secretary desks are the kind of desks you’d see in a traditional library or study – they have the look of an older, more refined era. This classic aesthetic has kept them cherished by collectors and interior designers alike.
In this article, you’ll learn what makes antique drop front secretary desks so valuable. We’ll also look at what sets them apart from roll-top desks and offer tips on determining whether a desk is truly an antique.
The History of Antique Drop-Font Secretary Desks
Antique drop front secretary desks have a long, storied history. The first models date back to the 17th century in Europe. Wealthy individuals primarily used these desks, as their elaborate designs made them quite expensive.
These desks became more popular as time passed due to their compactness, functionality, and elegant look. They found their way into the homes of many influential people, including Thomas Jefferson.
In the 19th century, drop-front secretary desks transformed – they became smaller and more ornate. These desks were perfect for storing important documents, writing letters, or any other task that required a desk in a small space.
But their actual time in the limelight was the 20th century. That’s when drop-front secretary desks started getting mass-produced and when being a secretary became a more popular job. Smaller offices of more modest businesses often had not enough space for roll-top desks, making the more compact drop-front desks a popular choice for them.
Today, while they are no longer used as utilitarian items, antique drop-front secretary desks still have a place in interior design. They add an aura of sophistication and class to any room while also serving as a reminder of times past. That’s why many collectors and antique enthusiasts are interested in them. Even if you are neither, a drop front secretary desk can be a great addition to any home, and it will surely become a heirloom piece over time.
Evaluating an Antique Drop-Front Secretary Desk
There are antique drop-front secretary desks for all budgets, and having an idea of how much you should be paying for one is crucial to getting a good deal and avoiding scams.
Editor’s note: Scams aren’t prevalent in the world of antiques, but it’s always important to be wary of deals that seem too good to be true.
As with every collectible item, there are a few factors to consider when evaluating an antique drop-front secretary desk:
- Rarity: The rarer the piece, the more valuable it is. Rarity affects every other factor on this list, as it determines the market demand.
- Age and history: The older the piece, the more valuable it is. It’s intuitive — older pieces are less likely to have survived in good shape today. History is also essential — works with a known provenance, such as those that belonged to famous people, are often worth more. Take, for example, the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson; how much more valuable would his desk be if it still existed today?
- Material and construction: The quality of the desk’s material and the craftsmanship of its structure can also affect its value. Materials such as mahogany, rosewood, or walnut are considered higher quality and, therefore, more valuable than cheaper materials like pine or oak. Craftsmanship-wise, check for signs such as dovetail joints, wooden screws, and hand-carved details.
- Condition: Condition plays heavily into the desk’s value. The closer it looked to when it was new, the more valuable it was. Any piece that is missing parts, or has extensive damage or repairs, will dramatically decrease its value. Conditions include the desk’s functionality — do the drawers open and close properly? Are there any broken parts?
- Size: Drop-front secretary desks come in several sizes, from small to large. Larger ones are often more valuable.
You will still need a professional appraiser to get a correct estimate for the desk’s value, but by looking at these factors, you can get an approximate idea of how much a particular drop-front secretary desk might be worth.
The Market Value of Antique Drop-Front Secretary Desks
Now that you know how to evaluate an antique drop-front secretary desk, you should understand that its market value can vary dramatically. The phenomenon happens because the value is, ultimately, subjective. Some pieces might “feel” like they should be valued higher or lower — but you’ll see them sell for different amounts.
If someone is willing to shell out more for a particular piece, that doesn’t make it more valuable overall. Likewise, pieces can be found for surprisingly low prices if there is not much interest in them.
To help you navigate the challenging market of antique drop-front secretary desks, we compiled a list of various pieces, together with their price. Let’s get started.
Editor’s note: Always check the desk’s shipping price before buying, as these tend to be very high for antique desks because they are very fragile and need lots of care during shipping.
Low End Antique Drop-Front Secretary Desks – Up to $1,000
At the lower end of the spectrum, you’ll find antique drop-front secretary desks that cost up to $1,000. These pieces will generally be in poorer condition, but if you’re willing to put some work into them, they can still make for excellent purchases.
- This Jasper Cabinet Mahogany Drop Front Secretary Desk Model # 897 4059 sells for $150
- This Antique Oak Secretary Desk Drop Front Tiger Oak Quarter Sawn Oak sold for $250
- This Antique Mahogany Home Office Desk, Drop Front Secretary sold for $475
- This Larkin Soaps Antique Oak Drop Front Desk Combination sells for $695
- This Mahogany Secretary with Drop Front c 1940’s sells for $975
These are best for people on a low budget or who feel comfortable with DIY work. You can buy one, restore it, and have a beautiful piece of furniture in your home.
Low to Mid End Antique Drop Front Secretary Desks – $1,000 to $2,000
As you move up the price scale, the quality and condition of the desks improves dramatically. These pieces are in decent condition and don’t need too much additional work to look great.
- This Quartersawn Oak Carved Sheboygan Drop Front Desk (DR36) sells for $1,195
- This Mid-Century Modern Drop Front Secretary Desk Bookcase Walnut and Pecan sells for $1,400
- This Antique Arts & Crafts Oak Limbert Desk Spade Cut Out Drop Front Secretary 1912 sold for $1,800
- This H.E. SHAW Antique Early 20th Century Mahogany Georgian Secretary Desk sells for $1,895
- This Antique Late 19th Century Burlwood Accented Walnut Drop Front Secretary Desk sells for $1,999
Here, you’ll find many classic and stylish desks that look great in any home. This price range is perfect for those looking for a piece of furniture with that vintage look and feel but don’t want to spend too much.
Mid-High End Antique Drop-Front Secretary Desks – $2,000 – $10,000
The pieces in this section start getting exceedingly fancy. They may feature intricate designs and carvings or be scarce pieces. Collectors are willing to pay a fat premium for these, as they are precious and stylish, to the point where you can slap them into any room to turn it into a vintage showpiece.
- This Early 19th Century French Empire Flame Mahogany Drop Front Secretary Desk sold for $2,650
- This Antique Chippendale Secretary Drop Front Desk Hutch Mahogany 1800s sells for $3,600
- This Rare HARRY L MOSES New Orleans, LA Marble Top Drop Front Secretary Desk Abatant sold for $4,500
- This 18th Century Italian Piemonte Commode Secretary Desk sells for $6,300
- This Biedermeier Secretary Desk, South West German, 1820 sells for $9,500
These desks are usually quite rare and hard to find, so if you’re lucky enough to stumble across one of these beauties, it could be worth the investment.
Premium Antique Drop-Front Secretary Desks – $10,000+
The cream of the crop, these antique drop-front secretary desks sell for a premium – prices as high as tens of thousands of dollars. They are usually unique pieces; you’ll find them in private collections or prestigious antique shops. These desks could just as easily belong to a museum, and you’ll see that many items on this list are historic pieces.
- This Amanuense Secretary Desk by Adolfo Natalini for Mirabili Limited Edition 2/99 sells for $12,000
- This Antique English Figured Walnut Secretary Bookcase With Drop Front Desk sells for $12,950
- This Venetian Rococo Style Walnut Secretary Lacquered by Ira Yeager sells for $18,000
- This Tesselated Black Marble Stone and Brass Inlay Secretaire by Maitland-Smith sells for $23,565.42
- This Continental Dutch Satinwood Secretary sells for $37,500
These are the desks to look out for if you’re looking for a truly exceptional piece. Collectors are always eyeing these one-of-a-kind pieces, making them highly sought after and expensive.
FAQs About Antique Drop-Front Secretary Desks
What’s the difference between a drop front and a roll-top desk?
The main difference between these two types of desks is the mechanism used to access the storage compartment. A drop-front desk has a hinged panel that can be lowered, while a roll-top desk has several small slats arranged in a curved shape and rolled upwards when access is needed.
How do I know if my secretary desk is antique?
To be sure, it is best to consult an antique furniture expert. However, you can do your due diligence by looking for signs of age and wear, such as aging or chipping of the finish, and checking out any markings that may indicate its origin. It would be best if you also looked for classic features like dovetail joints which are a good indicator of age. Additionally, you can research similar pieces to understand your desk’s value and rarity better.
What are other names for drop-front secretary desks?
It is essential to handle wooden furniture carefully to maintain its original beauty. It should be lubricated regularly with special oil or wax and dusted with a soft cloth. Avoid cleaning it with harsh chemicals, which can damage the delicate finish. Also, keep the desk in a cool, dry area, as extreme temperatures can cause wood to crack or warp. Finally, place felt pads on the feet of your desk to protect floors from scratches and nicks.
Antique drop-front secretary desks are pieces of art. They can transform a dull room into a living vintage museum, offering a unique and sophisticated look. Plus, they are beneficial if you’re a writer or need a place to hide your clutter, as all the drawers and secret compartments make these desks very practical.
An incredible perk of drop-front desks is their prevalence throughout the centuries. Thus, there are a variety of styles and prices available; you might find one at a bargain price and enrich your space with a unique piece of furniture.
Regardless of your reason for wanting one, you should know that these desks are an investment — take proper care of yours, and it’ll become a prized family heirloom.
If you need clarification on the authenticity of a piece, don’t worry. Some professionals specialize in antique furniture restoration and appraisal that can help you determine if your desk is truly an antique.
Regardless, drop-front desks are a timeless addition to any home and worth the investment. Why not bring an antique piece of history into your space?