The piece of furniture tucked in a West Ashley storage shed for years might not have attracted much interest had it sat in an antique shop, especially if no one noticed the carving on top.
Its finish had dulled to a dark black, its mirror was missing, and its wood had been gnawed on by rodents and possibly bugs. It had more than 100 loose or missing pieces, including all four feet. It also had more than two dozen random pieces appended to it during different repairs. No one knew for sure when or where it was built.
What a difference a decade can make.
Today, the desk and bookcase that once belonged to John Drayton is considered the finest surviving piece of furniture imported into colonial America and is currently a star of the show inside Drayton Hall's new Gates Gallery.
When it was uncrated and moved inside Drayton Hall in the mid-18th century, it arguably was the grandest piece of furniture in the grandest room of the Lowcountry's grandest residence.
And its epic journey from that storage shed to Virginia and back is almost as interesting as the piece itself.
'Never a question'
The desk and bookcase were loaned to Drayton Hall in 1980, then officially donated in 1998 by Charles Drayton and Martha Drayton Mood, members of the family that had sold the Ashley River plantation property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974.
The Trust soon opened the Georgian Palladian house as a museum but opted against using any furnishings inside, so this piece of furniture and other family pieces were placed in storage indefinitely.
It wasn’t until Colonial Williamsburg came calling about a decade ago that the fate of the desk and bookcase started to turn.
Colonial Williamsburg's curators were scouring the South hoping to find appropriate objects to borrow for a new exhibit called “A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South” at its DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
Over the years, Drayton Hall’s staff had been told the desk was a colonial revival object from the late 19th century, after the Civil War. But then a team led by Ronald Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s vice president for Collections, Conservation, and Museums, took a look.
“Our examination quickly confirmed that it was instead a product of the mid-18th century,” he said. “This was obvious to us based upon decades of experience studying literally hundreds of pieces of British and American furniture from that time," he said.
"We clearly saw the date of construction in things such as the hardware, the tool marks, the oxidation of the surfaces, and frankly even in the style of the object," he added. "It was never a question in our minds.”
But their exciting discovery still did not change this fact: The desk pretty much looked like a piece of junk.
About 2,000 man-hours
Drayton Hall and Colonial Williamsburg soon struck a deal.
If Colonial Williamsburg would restore the desk and bookcase at no cost, Drayton Hall would agree to let the DeWitt Wallace Museum display the piece for five years after the job was done. For Drayton Hall, that wasn’t giving up much: It would take about about five years before it had a suitable place to display it.
For the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, it was a daunting task, one overseen by conservator Chris Swan.
Swan knew the pros and cons behind its state of benign neglect. On one hand, it hadn't been harmed by a series of aggressive repairs. On the other, it had suffered from heat, humidity, rodents and more.
One of the biggest challenges was figuring out the philosophical approach to the work, he said.
"This was a big project," he said. "There was a period of a couple of years where we just mulled it over."
Was the desk an archaeological fragment that simply should be stabilized? Was it most appropriate to restore it to its original glory? Or was the best path somewhere in between?
"We’re so conservative as conservators in that we like the noninvasive and minimally invasive. In other words, less is more in whatever we do with anything," he said. "We’ve seen so many things over the years that have been restored, and in many cases very poorly, with no insight into what the design intent was. We were a little more careful about wanting to do anything.”
The work would involve more than 2,000 man-hours — more than any private collector could have justified since such restoration work often can cost around $100 per hour.
Traditional and not so much
Fortunately, there was time to think about it. The piece first was placed in a container without oxygen to kill off any larvae or bugs inside.
Ultimately, the organizations agreed to an approach that Swan called "restorative conservation," the middle path.
"The restorative part of it is what you might call the backward looking aspect to reclaim more of what the maker intended," he said. "The conservation side is associated with forward thinking of protecting and preserving and keeping it going for the future."
Disassembling and studying the piece revealed details no one alive knew about, including different wood from six continents and 13 secret or hidden compartments for jewelry or important papers.
On the traditional side, the restoration work involved the careful removal of later lacquers and protecting the original finish with a high-grade acrylic resin that not only protects the piece but also can be removed at some future point. So its patina, visual signs of stress over the years, still shows.
"A certain amount to that patina gives the viewer some confidence to know that it’s old," Swan said. "We associate value with age, so you don’t want to try to erase that.”
Also on the traditional side, craftsman carefully carved replacement pieces where small parts were missing.
"The hardware was a huge challenge because of the metallurgy involved, the way brass oxidizes and corrodes under varnish coatings is very complicated," he said.
On the nontraditional end, the conservators had to figure out the puzzle of the door to the bookcase. They found fragments of gilding, which along with what they knew about English furniture of the period strongly suggested the panel had a mirror.
And that original mirror would have been quite heavy, given the period, Swan said. Many speculate it was lost when the door swung out and caused the bookcase piece — which simply rests on top of the desk — to topple over.
Placing a similar, heavy mirror back was out of the question: The door was too warped and its hinges too brittle. Instead, conservators fashioned a piece of plexiglass, and even beveled its edge, to look like the original mirror at a fraction of the weight.
"Plexiglass has the same refractory tradition as glass," Swann said, adding its color was adjusted to mirror the tin-mercury silver of the original.
Hurst said the desk and bookcase was not necessarily the longest or more complex furniture treatments that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has ever undertaken, but "that said, it is likely among them."
So what's it worth?
Any antique aficionado is bound to be familiar with PBS' long-running series "Antiques Roadshow," where the erudite explanation of an object's backstory is always dramatically punctuated with its estimated price tag.
As nonprofit institutions, Drayton Hall's and Colonial Williamsburg's experts are prohibited from offering up monetary appraisals for antiques and works of art. But other experts can.
George Read, who served on Drayton Hall's collections committee and a former director of Sotheby's English Furniture Department, said John Drayton's desk and bookcase, also known as a secretary, is "certainly in the six figure range."
But it's not really that simple.
"This George II Secretary is unlike any other — any other currently known, I should say," Read said. "The circumstances of its acquisition, its lineage, and the events that punctuate its extraordinary passage through time make any comparison of its nature and character to other, similar pieces virtually impossible."
Hurst called it the "finest known example of imported English furniture from Colonial America," based on its elaborate design, superior materials and its initial cost when new.
For Drayton Hall's staff, the desk's repair and return marks a pivotal moment in its effort to broaden the museum property's interpretation beyond the surviving house.
Curator of Collections Sarah Stroud Clarke said, "I will admit to having gotten a little teary the day we installed it the new gallery."
For visitors to Drayton Hall, getting an up close look at the desk and bookcase is also difficult to put a price on.
For the first time, they can see evidence of how the plantation's furnishings were just as grand as the house's long-admired architecture. And the grand piece of furniture sits juxtaposed with other objects, including a Drayton slave brand, that speak not only to the wealth of the manor but also to the enslaved labor that helped make it all possible.