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Antiques: Home Games

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Before there were video games and home theaters, playing cards and board games were the home entertainments of choice, and often, they were incorporated inside a piece of furniture known as a games table. Of course, games themselves have been around for thousands of years, and game boards, pieces, and cards can be found in collections of objects commissioned for royalty, but games tables did not become a feature of homes in Europe and America until the 18th and 19th centuries.

Because they reflected the prevailing fashions for both furniture design and games, the tables that survive represent many different shapes, sizes, and styles. Some table surfaces are inlaid with a single game board, such as the pattern of 64 alternately colored squares used in chess. Others have a plain surface that can be flipped to reveal a board, or they are double-sided, with a chessboard on one surface and a backgammon board on the other. Still others conceal boards for several different games beneath their tops. Built-in compartments, some of which are hidden, were designed to store playing pieces between sessions.

“Games tables are some of the most sophisticated pieces of furniture in terms of creativity, construction, and cutting-edge design,” says Leslie Keno, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s and a specialist in its American furniture and decorative arts department. The finest tables represented more than amusement, however. “They were a status symbol in the home,” Keno says. “They showed that the owner had reached a certain economic level and had the leisure time to play games. They were a sign of wealth.” Because these tables were kept in the public rooms of houses and used to entertain, they were made from beautiful woods and sometimes decorated with ivory or precious metals.

Few if any antiques dealers base their businesses on games tables alone, largely because not enough high-quality examples remain to make such a specialization viable. However, an antique furniture dealer such as Kentshire Galleries in Manhattan might have a couple on hand at any time. “Good ones are hard to find, and good ones are very salable,” says Kentshire co-owner Robert Israel, whose inventory includes a rectangular English Regency table from 1820.

Auction houses frequently include games tables in their general furniture sales, and Keno notes that the client services division of Sotheby’s will watch for something that matches your requirements and alert you when such a table arrives. In any search for a table, two certainties will hold true: When found, the table will not contain its original pieces (Keno and Israel, for all their experience, have yet to see one that does), and if it is of a high quality, the table will be expensive–as Keno can attest.

In 1998, in one of the more sensational episodes of Antiques Roadshow, Keno and his twin brother, Leigh, evaluated a games table that a retired schoolteacher had purchased at a yard sale for $25. The table was built by Boston craftsmen John and Thomas Seymour in 1798, and the brothers believed it was worth at least $200,000. It sold at Sotheby’s months later for $490,000.

Regardless of its price, a games table can possess an invaluable aura, says Keno. “If only they could speak, the stories that they could tell about the lives that revolved around them–stories of games, laughter, and various libations,” he says. “It’s obvious that drinks were imbibed and games were played at these tables. It makes them interesting.”

Kentshire Galleries, 212.673.6644, www.kentshire.com
Sotheby’s, 212.606.7000, www.sothebys.com

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