Treasures: Wake table served the needs of dearly departed
Dear Helaine and Joe:
I was told this table was made in England from burr-walnut. The legs are a puzzle to me because they look like horse hooves. The table is 94 inches long and 66 inches wide when both the drop leaves are open. I have been told it is called a "coffin table" -- whatever that is. What can you tell me about its age and value?
G. A. N.
Dear G. A. N.:
Let us start with the idea that this is a "coffin table." We scratched our heads over this one for a while and then we found a reference to a "wake table" that was designed to hold the coffin for the "guest of honor" at a traditional Irish/Celtic wake.
Today, we tend to view the deceased at a funeral home where he or she has been prepared for burial. But in earlier times, when someone died -- particularly in a home with Celtic heritage -- a window was opened so the spirit of the departed could leave the house. It was considered bad luck to stand between the deceased and the open window -- thus impeding his or her spiritual departure.
After about two hours the window was closed to prevent the spirit from returning to its earthly body. All the clocks were stopped and women gathered to bathe and dress the deceased. The body was then laid out on a wake table -- or as expressed to G. A. N. -- a coffin table.
However, in most cases the body would not actually be placed in a coffin until after the undertaker arrived, which was the morning after a night (or two) of vocal lamentations about the passing, and stories about the life of the dearly departed. Yes, there was also food, music, dancing, drinking and even a few games to make the Irish/Celtic wake seem something like a party.
We also found a note that there was a Celtic tradition that a body had to be watched to prevent evil spirits from removing it. In any event, the one or two wake tables we were able to uncover were fairly low to the ground (one was only 20 inches tall), tended to be 60 inches long and the drop leaves were supported by a gate leg.
The table in today's question is much taller than that (as evidenced by the photographs we have showing chairs placed underneath the table surface) and much longer. Next, we considered it being a breakfast table -- but again, it did not quite fit the requirements -- and we decided it was an English dining table of the early to mid-20th century (hard to be sure of the exact age from the photographs).
G. A. N.'s next concern was about the legs that have feet that resemble "horse hooves." The pictures we have of the legs are not full length, which gives us some problems in deciding exactly what they are. On close examination we see a shell carved on the "knee" of what may be the top of a cabriole legs.
The cabriole leg originated in China, but it was popular in 18th century Europe. Its shape is that of a shallow "S" curve and the name is derived from the Italian for goat's leap -- or "capriola." The leg is supposed to be a stylized representation of an animal's front legs from the knee downwards to the foot.
The animal leg may be that of a goat, a ram, a dragon, a lion, and yes, a horse. We do not think the feet on these table legs are carved as well as they would have been earlier on, so we feel the piece is 20th century. But the real glory of this table is not the feet but the magnificent burl walnut veneer on the top, which is almost a work of art.
For insurance purposes, this table's value is $1,500 to $2,000.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.