Ever seen an intimidating desk with a seemingly endless number of drawers and a tambour mechanism to uncover more space? That was most likely a rolltop desk. This elegant engineering wonder first saw the light around the 18th century, when King Louis XV of France needed a work station worthy of a king. Kings were known to own all kinds of trinkets, and storing them properly was a real problem.

Eventually, these desks made their way into America around the 19th century, and they immediately became popular in offices. Its popularity remained high until the years preceding the Depression.

It’s been over 100 years since rolltop desks have been in vogue. But their versatility and functionality – as well as their vintage looks – have been drawing the attention of collectors for a long time.

In this article, you are going to learn everything you need to know about rolltop desks. How to evaluate one, a few interesting sales of the past, and how to restore or sell yours, should you be a lucky possessor of one.

The History of Rolltop Desks

History of Rolltop Desks

King Louis XV, who ruled France from 1715 to 1774, was an avid writer. The pedestal desks of his time were unsatisfying to him, as they didn’t hold enough books and paper to let him dedicate himself to the writing craft.

Thus, he ordered his henchmen to create a desk that would make writing easier for him. The story of how this desk style came to be is tumultuous, as the first person working on it, Jean François Oeben, died after 3 years of working on it. The job was then taken by his successor, Jean Henri Reisner, who managed to finish it 6 years later.

But this rolltop desk never got to America. What happened instead was that mister Jacob Alles from Jasper, Indiana, “invented” the same style of desk over 100 years later, in 1879. And it was love at first sight for the U.S. people. This desk’s main advantage was how easy it was to mass produce compared to other popular styles of the time (particularly cylinder desks).

Here’s a video where you can see a rolltop desk in action. Look at how much space you have to do all sort of things on it:

Its massive popularity lasted for over 100 years, and since these desks were the golden standard of furniture back then, quite a lot are still around. And thanks to their distinct style, they are highly sought-after both by collectors and laypeople. The latter often look for one to decorate an office and make it look more like an early 20th century office, whereas the formers are after valuable pieces for the sake of collecting them

Evaluating Antique Rolltop Desks

Want to buy or sell an antique rolltop desk? You need to be able to evaluate one beforehand. First, being able to (roughly) evaluate a desk means avoiding any potential fraud. Second, it can give you a good idea of how much to budget or ask for a desk you’re buying/selling.

Here’s what you need to look at:

  • The type of wood — The type of wood used in the desk is easily the most important part to check. Different wood types signal different ages. Older desks built before 1900 were made with cherry, mahogany, or walnut wood. Newer ones preferred oak wood. Also, the value of the wood itself heavily affects price – for example, mahogany wood is more expensive than oak wood.
  • Analyze the desk’s conditions — As with every collectible out there, pieces in better conditions command higher prices. Examine every inch of the desk and look for chips, scratches, nicks, and discoloration. The closer the desk looks to when it was brand new, the higher its value. Conversely, if time has taken its toll on the piece, it’ll be cheaper.
  • Look for maker marks — These are usually placed underneath the desk. Look for logos/marks by big name company of the past, such as Schlicht Area Company or Derby Desk Company. Some desks will also feature a date there. This is your best weapon against buying a fake desk.

Once you’ve checked all of these, you should be able to estimate the desk’s conditions. The closer it looks to how it was when it was new, the better the conditions. And better conditions equal higher prices.

If you’re unsure about how to evaluate a desk, or can’t quite figure out what you’re dealing with, you should contact an expert appraiser. These people will, for a fee, evaluate the desk for you. However, keep in mind that 2 appraisers will give you 2 differing opinions, and even the same appraiser might evaluate the desk differently in 2 different occasions. Don’t take their word as gospel – it’s a valuable expert opinion, but it’s still subjective.

But most importantly, they’ll be able to tell you if the desk is authentic or not.

Spotting a Rolltop Desk Reproduction

Since rolltop desks can sell for a lot of money, dishonest actors in for a quick buck try to build faithful reproductions to sell to unsuspecting buyers. Luckily for us, it’s not that hard to recognize a fake, as authentic rolltop desks are quite old, and thus have all sort of signs of age.

The first and perhaps most obvious sign of being fake is when the desk looks too good. If there are no splinters, scratches, or anything else, then it’s probably fake. Since these desks are supposed to be at least 100 years old, even the best stored ones will show wear and tear.

Editor’s note: Make sure these signs of wear and tear aren’t manufactured. If there’s any sign of unnatural wear in some areas compared to others, then you should be suspicious. For example, the main area should present more wear than the desk’s underneath.

Another sign to look for is the type of wood used. Specifically, since cost was a real concern, areas that are usually out of sight, such as the drawers’ interior, was built with more common wood. If the desk you’re inspecting uses the same type of wood all around, it’s probably not an antique. Antiques had expensive woods on the outside, and cheaper, more common woods in the inside.

Now you’re ready to journey into the world of antique rolltop desks.

The Most Valuable Antique Rolltop Desks

Antique rolltop desks come in all forms. You’ll find jaw-dropping ones that cost tens of thousand of dollars, as well as more mundane ones that go for a few hundred dollars.

In this list, we wanted to give you a breadth of views of past sales, with a focus on higher-end pieces. That way, if you’re in the market for a valuable rolltop desk, or you own one and you want to sell it, you can see for yourself how much you should budget.

The main places where you can buy an antique rolltop desks are:

  • Online auction sites like eBay
  • Auction houses like Heritage Auctions
  • Antique shops
  • Yard sales

While no place is superior to the others, you should be careful when shopping at online auction sites. Examine the pictures and don’t be afraid to ask for more to the seller.

Let’s now get into the list of most valuable antique rolltop desks.

Vintage Antique Raised panel S Curve Rolltop Desk – $395

Antique Raised panel S Curve Rolltop Desk

Here’s a rolltop desk from the early 1900s that is on the cheaper side for an antique. You can tell yourself by looking at the picture that time hasn’t been kind to this desk.

The nicks and scratches are evident all over the desk, and the discoloration on the inside is also quite evident. This would probably be best to be restored by a professional, as it doesn’t look that good in its current state.

Still, it’s an antique piece of history, which helps keep its value decently high. Yes, it’s on the cheaper side, but it’s still quite valuable, and with proper restoration it will look as good as new.

Austro-Hungarian Biedermeier Rosewood and Tiger Maple Knee-Hole Rolltop Desk – $575

Austro-Hungarian Biedermeier Rosewood and Tiger Desk

This rolltop desk from the 19th century sports one of the simplest designs on this list. It’s also smaller than most other desks. Still, this was a wonderful piece with a very elegant dark color thanks to the walnut wood build.

While the outside of the desk is pretty much as good as new, the interior leaves a lot to be desired. Particularly, the inner desk part is heavily scratched, and there are visible cracks to the side. It’s a shame, as this piece could have easily gone for way more money without these flaws.

A piece like this one is great if you’re low on space and are looking for a darker, more atmospheric style of decoration for your room.

Rare Antique Salesman’s Sample Rolltop Desk w/Paper Label – $900

Rare Antique Salesman's Sample Rolltop Desk

Here’s a rolltop desk built by W.J. Heath in New Boston, North Hampshire. As you can see from the pictures, the conditions of this piece are pretty good. There are minor nicks here and there, but nothing to worry about.

The biggest flaws are on the back of the piece. It was probably leaning against a wall and didn’t receive much care from that side. Still, it’s only some patina discoloration, which, again, is not the end of the world. Plus, it’s hardly visible if you place the piece against a wall.

This is a very solid buy for people looking for a rolltop desk that is simple and just works. It’s a tad expensive, but antiquity isn’t cheap.

Antique 19th C. American Oak Rolltop Desk – $1,950

Antique 19th Century American Oak Rolltop Desk

This model from 1895, built in quartersawn oak, is a great example of antique rolltop desk. The tambour still works, and the piece’s conditions are overall pretty good. We have a suggestion for the seller: the pictures are a little too blurry.

Still, you can tell that this desk’s conditions are pretty good. There is some wear on the sliding roll top and inside the drawers, but it’s nothing visually bad.

The lighter color makes this desk fit better in a room that gets a lot of light. If you’re looking for a piece to make your reading/writing space more joyous, this kind of piece is for you.

Walnut Pedestal Roll Top Desk – $5,471.58

Walnut Pedestal Roll Top Desk

This is a walnut desk from early 1900, built in the United Kingdom. It shows minor signs of wear, consistent with age and use, but for an antique, this is as good as it gets. You’ll find tiny nicks and scratches around the drawers and in the desk’s inside, but overall, the piece still looks excellent.

The coloration is still great, the piece is stable and structurally sound, and the conditions are quite good. That’s how it managed to command such a high price – almost $6,000.

This kind of piece would fit just about any kind of room.

Dutch Neo Classic Marquetry Roll Top Desk – $12,000

Dutch Neo Classic Marquetry Desk

This is the oldest piece on this list, as it was built in the 1790s. It’s a Dutch-made desk from a time when rolltop desks didn’t exist yet in the United States. You can tell it’s atypical as it has a distinct design.

The piece is in excellent conditions, both inside and outside. There are minor flaws popping up here and there, as it’s expected from a desk that is over 200 years old, but it still looks surprisingly good.

And the fair conditions combined with the unique design reflect in this piece’s price – a jaw-dropping $12,000. But owning one of these is bound to make everyone envy you.

Antique American 66″ Golden Oak Rolltop Desk Dorsey Printing Co Dallas Tx – $12,500

Antique American 66 Golden Oak Desk

Finishing our list, we have this beauty that was sold on eBay for a staggering $12,500. This desk was built in 1904, and was recovered from the Dallas Printing Company’s offices.

This is easily one of the most elegant pieces you’ll find around nowadays. The tambour mechanism still works perfectly, the drawers are all present, and overall, the desk is in great conditions.

You can notice some tear in the drawers’ inside, but it’s only a minor flaw in an almost perfect piece.

This desk will cause even the most expert collectors’ mouths to water at the thought of buying it. It’s a perfect piece for anyone trying to decorate an interior like a 1900s office, or who wants to replicate an older style of furniture in their living room.  

Antique Rolltop Desks for Sale

If you’re in the market for an antique rolltop desk, here are some of our favorite options:

  • If you’re strapped for cash, consider this vintage desk. Keep in mind that this is only a vintage – it’s not an antique. It’s around 70 years old (instead of the 100+ needed to become an antique), but it makes up for it in functionality. The desk is very spacious and the tambour still works fine. Excellent choice for those on a budget.

Antique Rolltop Desk

  • If you care more about functionality than looks, this Antique Rolltop Desk is a solid buy. For just $395, you can get yourself a very big desk that still works fine. Again, it’s a matter of preference – if you care more about looks, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you want a big desk to work on, this is the buy.

Antique Wooden Rolltop Desk

  • To round up our list, here’s an Antique Victorian Walnut Cylinder Roll Up Desk built in Scotland around 1870. Built in solid walnut, this piece is in good condition, and is in the Victorian style. It’s a bit pricy at $3,000, but it’s worth every penny.

Antique Roll Up Computer Desk

FAQs about Antique Rolltop Desks

Can I re-paint antique rolltop desks?

Yes, you can, but make sure to sand them properly beforehand.

Are restored rolltop desks valuable?

If the restoration signs aren’t too evident, yes. A poorly-done restoration will kill a desk’s value though.

Is a broken tambour fixable?

Yes, here’s a video that shows you how:

Wrapping Up

Collectors love antique rolltop desks. They look cool, they can mix and match many furniture styles, and there are some real gems out there in terms of design. Plus, they can still be used just fine. If you’re a big-time reader/writer, or you love drawing a rolltop desk is a great choice for you.

When you’re trying to buy or sell a rolltop desk, make sure you’re getting good value for what you’re paying/earning. If you’re unsure about the value of a rolltop desk, you can always ask a professional to appraise it for you.

Last, when buying online, make sure to buy from reputable sellers. Carelessness can be problematic for a desk, and a careless seller risks shipping the desk without proper protections. It’s best to go and pick the desk up yourself whenever possible.

Rolltop desks are items that are functional and look great. Collectors and enthusiasts alike can find one that fits into their budget and room design. Just make sure to buy an original one, and you’ll be able to enjoy it for years to come.

Also Read:

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *