As with all antique furniture, beauty and value are in the eye of the beholder--and the buyer. Antique rocking chairs have gone through hot and cold periods in terms of collecting, but in 2010 we are in a hot period. People are looking for antique chairs that are functional, beautiful, easily restored and made from high quality wood. You can appraise the value of a chair you own, or a chair you are looking at, by following the “scoring” basis of professional “pickers.”
Test the rocking chair for stability by pressing down on the seat and the arms and wiggling the chair from side to side. Grasp any cross members in the back or base and see if they are tightly fitted. A rocking chair that is terribly fragile or wobbly will be significantly less valuable to a buyer than a chair that is still rock-solid and fit to be used. Give your chair one point for firm stability.
Inspect all the joints. Use a magnifying glass. Train your eye and glass on all the mortise-and-tenon joints, looking for evidence of any cracks in the wooden dowels or any signs of fresh, modern glue. It’s acceptable for an antique chair to be re-glued by a restorer, but you need to be aware this has occurred. Ask questions about any repair work you spot, especially if you suspect entire dowels or parts to the chair aren’t original. Give your chair one point for tight joints, subtract one point for loose joints or replaced parts.
Identify the wood. Valuable chairs are made of high-end woods like walnut, birds eye maple, cherry, cedar, quarter-sawn oak and rarer woods. Less valuable rocking chairs are made from ordinary pine and regular oak. All the parts of the chair must be made from the same wood product. Score your chair two points if the wood is high-end.
Assess the finish of the chair to determine how easy or how difficult it will be to refinish the chair. Chairs with a great deal of carving or scroll work will be harder to refinish than chairs with flat surfaces. Chairs with many coatings of thick old enamel paint will be painful to refinish. Chairs that are unfinished or only have a finish of shellac will be a breeze. Give your chair one point if it is an easy refinish job or two points if it requires no refinishing at all.
Press on woven or rush seats or backs with your fingers spread apart in a tent shape. Determine if the woven areas are strong, or sagging or brittle. Look for evidence of replacements. Repairs are acceptable, as long as they are correct for the chair. Award one point for solid woven seats and backs.
Turn the chair over and look for any brand or markings that would identify the maker of the chair. Do research on this manufacturer if possible. Some chairs by famous makers (like Gustav Stickley) are far more valuable than ordinary chairs. Give your chair five points if it is made by a collectible maker, less if not; subtract one point if there is no identification.
Note the style of the chair. There are a vast number of styles for American rocking chairs (and rocking chairs are an American invention by the way). Some styles are ubiquitous, like early American Windsor rockers, Tennessee porch rockers, Morris chairs and Shaker or Jenny Lind rocking chairs. Other chair styles, like Adirondack chairs and some oak press back chairs are rarer and are thus more valuable. Give your chair five points if it is unique and interesting to look at, down to no points if it is not attractive to look at all.
Add up the points the rocking chair has scored. Compare this score against the field of 17 possible points for this assessment. If your chair scored less than 8 points it probably has little value to the average collector. If your chair scored 8 to 12 points, it probably has mid-range value. If your chair earned 13 to 15 points, it probably has real collector value. If it earned 16 to 17 points, you could have a real find on your hands. If you’re the owner it may be worthwhile to take a high scoring chair to a professional appraiser for certification. Or, if you’re the buyer, and the price is less than $250, buy it.