Antique trunks make a wonderful addition to your home nowadays but were originally designed purely for practical use. Trunks and people have a long and fascinating history, and a great number of examples are preserved today. These beautiful pieces of craftsmanship hold stories and contain intriguing features and details. This makes them extremely popular even today!
Perhaps you have inherited a trunk from a relative? Spotted an attractive piece in an antiques shop? Or have been searching for one for a long time? Then you have come to the right place. In order to identify whether a trunk is a true antique or holds any value, there are some simple steps that can be taken. There are several different types of trunk which can be easily identified by inspecting their features. Here, we will provide you with a guide on trunk identification, valuation, and purchase. Join us to find out more!
Brief History Of Trunks
The history of trunks dates back to pre-medieval times where they were crafted to store possessions or wares, primarily to transport them over long distances.
In America, trunks began to be made in the 1600s. These were crafted usually from wood, and covered in various animal hides including deer, horse and cowhides for durability and waterproofing.
On the Eurasian continent, trunk manufacture became particularly prevalent in the 1800s, soaring in popularity during the Victorian era, from the 1870s. This coincided with the continuing spread of the continental railway. When the transportation of passengers, of a range of classes and for a range of purposes became more common, trunks were required for the safe transportation of possessions.
While most trunks began as simple wooden boxes, lined with paper and sometimes sporting a lock, they gained extra features and complexity over time. People began to cover them with leather, canvas, and sheet metal such as embossed tin. Features like compartments, drawers, hangers and wheels were added. Intricate patterns, and brass or iron adornments became a more common sight, especially in custom-made, expensive designs.
But how can we identify a trunk nowadays? Which features should we look for? Let’s take a closer look at trunk identification including types of trunks and well-known brands or makers.
Antique Trunk Identification
First of all, to be sure that a trunk is antique it must be over 100 years old. If it is younger than 100 years but older than 20 years it is, instead, considered as vintage rather than antique. If a trunk has been restored it also cannot be considered as an antique any longer. However, this does not mean it does not hold value! A well restored trunk can still hold much value, and fetch a higher price than an antique trunk in very poor condition or a badly restored piece.
Secondly, people often get confused between a chest and a trunk. To be fair, there can be some crossover, but there are a few general guidelines to tell a chest and a trunk apart:
- Chests tend to be more ornate and detailed, while trunks are more simple and practical items.
- While chests were primarily crafted as decorative pieces of furniture, trunks were made for transporting items so tend to have a more practical, sturdy design.
- Trunks tend to be smaller and portable (even if they require two people to lift them!) whereas chests tend to be larger and heavier.
Also Read: Antique Cedar Chests: The Beginners’ Guide To Value And Identify Old Pieces
Most Common Types Of Trunks
If you have no luck identifying the type of trunk you have using our list below, it can be very helpful to seek help from several fantastic forums where experts and amateur enthusiasts gather. You can share photos and search for threads where people may have posted similar queries. Some of these include:
Although trunks range hugely in design, there are a few distinctive design categories that most trunks will fall under. We will describe some of these here…
This type of trunk is perhaps the most common type. The design is closest to the original trunks that were made for long distance travel during Victorian times. As the name suggests, these are flat on top and intended for easy stacking and storage. The cuboid form makes them stable and practical, ideal for loading onto trains, carriages and ships. Their simplicity made them affordable for less wealthy people to travel in the past. Sometimes they include handles for portability.
These trunks are generally more ornate, with attractive details. They are also known as round topped, camel, barrel or humpback trunks due to their convex, curved lids. This design was more expensive due to being more intricate, so only wealthier people could afford them. Today, they are one of the most popular trunks to install in your home as a beautiful piece of furniture.
Jenny Lind Trunks
In the 1850s and 60s, Jenny Lind was a very famous Swedish singer. She toured the USA, bringing with her a unique-looking trunk. It was curved inwards in the middle, and resembled a loaf of bread in profile! Often these trunks feature bands of brass fixed with large brass studs. Following her tour, copies of her trunk were manufactured and the popularity of this design soared – perhaps an early example of a celebrity trend!
The design of this trunk was intended to exhibit elegant craftsmanship. Thin wooden slats were placed next to one another, creating a robust construction. This kind of trunk is normally cuboid in shape, but may also feature a curved top.
Travel (Steamer) Trunk
Travel, or steamer, trunks were specifically designed for travel, and to fit into tight spaces. They are unusual in that they are designed to stand on their end (i.e. upright) and open outwards, usually revealing multiple small compartments or drawers.
Saratoga, New York, was a well-known, popular vacation spot for wealthier people during the 1800s. The popularity of this trunk design amongst Saratoga holiday-makers lead to people naming this trunk after the location. These pieces are elaborate, often featuring a rounded top and an exterior covered in leather. Sometimes they sport a frame or simply strips made out of canvas or metal.
This smart design is note-worthy due to its practicality in small spaces. It can be shoved right up to a wall and the lid can be opened without any issues. This is due to a distinctive hinge mechanism meaning the trunk can open within its own space rather than requiring a margin of several inches from the wall. Sometimes wall trunks were also designed as open-out dressers.
Famous Trunk Brands
It can be incredibly hard or even impossible to work out the origin of a trunk. It was common for makes or manufacturers to include a paper tag or receipt to identify the trunk was made by them. Otherwise, a maker’s mark may have worn away long ago. Sometimes the design features of the trunk are enough to pin it down to a certain brand or maker from history.
Although it is difficult to authenticate an antique trunk, there are some common, reputable brands which you can research that may lead you to identify your particular trunk. These include:
- Louis Vuitton
- Martin Maier
- Shwayder Trunk Company/Samsonite
Antique Trunk Valuing
Antique trunks vary a great deal in value. Prices depend on the age, brand, authenticity, condition, size, and rarity. While a good condition, rare Louis Vuitton trunk can fetch up to $50,000 USD, other under-valued brands or trunks of unknown origin can go for around $20 USD. There is a fantastic example of a Goyard trunk which was purchased for exactly $20 USD at a garage sale. It was later valued by experts at between $1,500 to $2,500 USD, but eventually sold for over $5,000 at auction!
This example shows the variability of trunk value – it can be location and happenstance-dependent! But remember, every trunk is different, and the value of your trunk can even depend on which part of the world you live in. We have provided some guidelines here, but it is best to seek professional advice to be 100% of the identity and value of the trunk in question.
There are a few steps you can take to try and value a trunk yourself:
1. Take A Careful Look At The Features
The shape and size of the trunk, the shape of the tops, the presence of embellishments (e.g. bands, a frame, special hinges, interesting locking mechanisms, corner protectors). This can help you pin the design down, and certain features can lead you straight to a brand or distinctive model.
In general, dome-topped trunks fetch a higher price than flat-topped trunks because they tend to be more ornate and complicated in design.
2. Try To Find A Logo/Maker’s Mark
Some brands or makers have distinctive logos which are easy to recognise. For example, Louis Vuitton trunks often possess an ‘LV’ on features like tacks, handles and ribbons.
If you have evidence of the provenance of the trunk, labels or documents confirming where it was made or who it was made by, this can really push the price up.
Sometimes, metal features can be stamped with words or letters. A common practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s was to display the time and date a patent was placed on the piece. For example, this trunk had ‘Pat. Mar. 1880’ stamped on the metal brackets. This meant it was patented in March 1880.
3. Determine The Condition
Value can be significantly affected by damage. If a trunk possesses holes, missing pieces or features, hardware which has been replaced and is no longer original, and refurbished varnish, the value can plummet. However, some wear and tear is normal and can add to the charm of a piece, particularly if it has a provenance story attached. Some trunks have an incredible history that is worth researching and remembering, such as this one which was traced back to the original owner!
Flat-topped trunks in original condition with the canvas or leather intact can reach between $100-$750 USD. This really depends on whether it has been refurbished and how well kept it has been.
4. Search For Other Similar Trunks
Try searching for other trunks of the same shape and size, and sporting the same features as your trunk. Searching sites including:
- Ebay – this auction (and direct buy) site has a great range of antiques. You can start by searching the antique trunks and chests section and narrow down the options by using the filters.
When you get to the search page, try filtering your search by marking the ‘sold listings’ and/or ‘completed items’ box. This will show you all the listings that have already been sold or settled, and the price they were sold for. By investigating their features and condition, you can get a good idea of how much your trunk is worth.
5. Try An Antiques Forum
Alternatively, if you don’t have much luck searching an auction site, there are some forums which specialise in helping people to value their items. Try TreasureNet What’s It Worth? or this active Subreddit forum called WhatsThisWorth. Enthusiasts can often be very useful and love to help one another out.
6. Ask An Antiques Specialist
If you’re really stuck, you can try asking an antiques specialist, or antique trunk expert to look your trunk over for you. They may be able to give you an idea of the provenance of the trunk, and provide a valuation. It can be more useful to find a local antiques dealer and show them the piece in person, as photos and descriptions cannot always give a certain authentication. Bear in mind, you may need to pay for these services.
Where To Buy Antique Trunks (And Buying Tips)
Now you’ve really got into antique trunks, it may be time to think about purchasing one for yourself (or perhaps adding to your collection!). We’ll list some of the tops places you can find real antique trunks, and provide a buying guide to help you make a good purchase.
- Ebay – this auction site has an incredibly helpful search function whereby you can filter the results and fine-tune your quest for an antique trunk. Filters include: time period, brand, material, style, condition, and price.
- Etsy – by simply searching for ‘antique trunks’ on the Etsy website, you can find many excellent examples of antique trunks from all over the world. Etsy sellers are usually open to contact and questions from potential buyers, so don’t be afraid to ask them for a little more detail about the items they are selling.
- com – this site is mainly focused on the European market, but prices are stated in GBP, EUR, and USD. The sellers on this site are antiques dealers, and it is connected with antiques fairs where buyers and sellers can go to exchange antiques.
- Independent trunk sellers – such as this company located in Lewiston, Maine (who happen to have some very useful articles about valuing and restoring trunks yourself). Try searching for your nearest, reputable antique trunk seller. Many of these businesses are run by antique enthusiasts and may be able to help if you are restoring a trunk yourself – they often sell parts and specialist tools.
- Second hand sites and garage sales – if you want to be thrifty and love to scour second hand stores for intriguing items this is definitely an option for you! You can find amazing antique trunks for very low prices in these places. Sometimes people under-value these items, not realizing how much they are really worth. At other times they are sold at a low price due to damage. If you like the idea of a restoration project this can also be a great option!
If you are thinking about buying an antique trunk online rather than in person, it is essential to make sure that what you’re buying is good quality. Go for items being listed with lots of detail – descriptions and images. Ideally, the listing will display pictures of all the important details both inside and outside the trunk. You can ask for the seller to provide you with extra images on some sites.
Honesty is the best policy – if there is damage the seller should report this in the advert. Look for suspicious patches which may be covering areas of damage. If parts of the trunk have been refurbished this should also be included in the description. Look for parts of the trunk which appear newer or fresher than other parts – this can be a giveaway and will knock down the price of a true antique trunk.
Think about going to see the trunk in person before buying. Considering the seller’s location when buying a trunk is a top tip, as shipping bulky and heavy items can be very expensive. If you have the chance to go and look at it, and pick it up in person then this is a great opportunity. It will save you money, and help you identify whether it is all the advert promises.