Source: Antiques Roadshow: "Eliza Law Custis Lap Desk, ca. 1795"
Antiques Roadshow: "Eliza Law Custis Lap Desk, ca. 1795"
A full Teacher's Guide accompanies this video on the Antiques Roadshow Web site.
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A lady's lap desk once belonging to the granddaughter of Martha Washington is the subject of this video from Antiques Roadshow. A gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, an ally of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, the French desk, still holds original papers from the 1820s written by the Washingtons' granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis. An inscribed plaque confirms that Eliza Custis gave this piece to her daughter, Eliza Law, in 1823. The appraiser is decorative arts expert, C. Wesley Cowan.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, lap desks — also known as writing boxes or writing cabinets — were used within homes, where they were placed on tables, as well as by travelers who were away from home. Generally made of mahogany or walnut, lap desks are similar to briefcases in some way and have compartments for paper, ink, and sealing wax.
The lady's lap desk presented in the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW video was given as a gift to Eliza Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, by the Marquis de Lafayette. A wealthy citizen of France, Lafayette came to America to support George Washington and the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Lafayette was not only a key military ally of Washington, but he also became a close friend of the Washington family. In fact, Lafayette named his son George Washington Lafayette and asked Washington to be his son's godfather.
A plaque inscribed on the front of the lap desk documents that Eliza Custis gave this piece to her daughter, Eliza Law, in 1823. This object provides an excellent example of the importance of provenanceThe record of ownership of a work of art or antique object, often used as a guide to the item's quality, authenticity, and value., or history of ownership, in determining an item's value. "The provenance of this box is absolutely ironclad," observes the appraiserAn expert who assesses the value, quality, and authenticity of works of art or other objects.. With this in mind, he estimates the value of the lap desk at between $30,000 and $50,000.
GUEST: I was the fortunate bystander, I guess you could say, in a liquidation of a large collection of Mount Vernon memorabilia that was known at that time as the Edmund Law Rogers Smith collection. And a descendant of the Custis line liquidated that large estate, much of which went back to Mount Vernon, especially the items that were known to have been at Mount Vernon during the occupancy by George and Martha Washington. And I purchased this directly from the descendant.
C. WESLEY COWAN, Appraiser, Cowan’s Auctions, Inc.: When did you buy it?
GUEST: I bought it in approximately 1981 to '83, and I do not recall the price. It was probably... over $1,000, under $3,000.
COWAN: The history behind this box is absolutely incredible. I want to start off by pointing out that there's a silver plaque here. The plaque says, "Presented by Marquis de Lafayette to Eliza Parke Custis, who gives it to her beloved daughter Eliza Law." Now, who is the Marquis de Lafayette? We all probably know.
COWAN: Who is Eliza Parke Custis?
GUEST: The Marquis de Lafayette was one of our big allies and one of our liaisons with France during the Revolutionary War, and was very important in our winning the Revolutionary War. And Eliza Parke Custis is the granddaughter of Martha Washington.
COWAN: She was Jack's daughter, and Jack was Martha's son.
COWAN: Jack Custis. Right. Now, when you open it up, this is basically a lap desk, a lady's writing desk, a traveling desk. Here in the top, you have all the necessary tools— a little sander to brush on top of your inked paper. This is a little ink well; you'd put your pens in here. This may be where a sealing wax or something went. And basically, this says that this was given to Eliza Parke Custis, and she's giving it to her daughter in 1823.
Same thing is more or less written on this much longer letter on the inside here. This is on the kind of paper that one would expect to find in 1823, and this is basically telling a little bit more about it, saying, "It was sent to me by the Marquis de Lafayette." It's French. There's no question about it. I've showed it to several of the other appraisers who really know European items.
COWAN: The Marquis de Lafayette came here in 1777. After the Revolutionary War, he went back to France. Then in 1824, at the request of Congress, President Monroe asked Lafayette to come to visit us.
COWAN: And he did that, and he was here for 14 months. He visited all 24 states at the time. But this box predates his visit to the U.S. So it says, "This was sent to me from the Marquis." So presumably this was sent from France to the United States. The plaque probably wasn't on the box, or if it was on the box, it was not engraved.
COWAN: Now, you've done a lot of work on the genealogical connections between all the various family members, and I've got to say, from what you've shown me, the provenance of this box is absolutely ironclad. In terms of the value of it, I would place a presale estimate of somewhere from $30,000 to $50,000.
COWAN: Well, it's not a bad investment for $1,500, $2,000, whatever.
GUEST: Indeed not, indeed not. Wow. Um... (sighs) I'll be very careful driving home.
GUEST: I'm aghast.
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