Cellaret: A “chest, usually of wood and of ornamental design, to hold bottles of wine in a dining room.” (Dictionary of the Decorative Arts, by John Flemming and Hugh Honour, Harper & Row, New York, 1977. p. 158.) While this short definition is absolutely accurate, it does nothing to articulate the sheer volume of cellarets and the different shapes, sizes, and styles that are available on the auction market today, or the importance of cellarets in 18th and 19th-century dining rooms.
Cellarets can be stunning, well crafted pieces or basic and utilitarian. Cellarets found their true prominence beginning in the mid 18th century and were an important part of dining room furnishings well into the mid 19th century. Used to secure and store bottles of wine and spirits, cellarets have their origins in English dining rooms, and found their way into the American colonies by way of imported furniture and pattern books such as Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-maker and Upholsters Drawing Book and Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinetmakers Director. As dining furniture evolved, the cellaret was often integrated into the sideboard as a cabinet or drawer, popular in the northern American colonies, but the cellaret as a separate piece of furniture continued to be desirable in the dining rooms of the American south, likely because of the South’s strong ties to England. Cellarets take many forms and can be simple, with inlays of eagles or stars or more ornate, raised on heavy paw feet. Some are meant to rest on a stand, others are substantial enough to rest on the floor, and still others are intended to rest on a table top. Most have heavy, locking lids to protect from theft, but yet there are some without lids that were used primarily for large gatherings. Cellarets were made in varying shapes including square, round and octagonal. With almost 200 years of popularity, you can be sure that there is a cellaret to fit any space, decor, and personal preference
The most rare, desirable and expensive forms of cellarets are American or English examples dating to the second half of the 18th century or the early 19th century, in the Chippendale and Federal styles. American pieces from the south, especially North Carolina and Kentucky realize astounding prices at auction selling in the $30,000-100,000 range, and a rare North Carolina cellaret sold in 2010 for $140,000. (pictured left) While there are some slight condition problems with this piece, its age and originating location, combined with a known family and cabinet maker, made this a truly exceptional cellaret and garnered an appropriate hammer price. Sarcophagus form cellarets, including those raised on paw feet typically dating from the early to mid 19th century, are still quite popular and typically garner hammer prices from $30,000-40,000. A Regency mahogany and ebonized cellaret (pictured right) sold for $37,000 at Sothebys in 2008 dates to 1810. Most 18th and 19th-century cellarets sell in the $5,000-$10,000 range, regardless of shape or size.
For those whose pockets are not quite so full, period and good reproduction cellarets are not beyond their reach. Tabletop cellarets will be the best choice when expense or space is an issue, and most period examples can be had for under $2000, and many also include the original bottles and glasses. Reproductions or later 20th-century pieces can be a great option as well, and this cellaret, with bottles and glasses, brought $250 at a 2005 auction at Leslie Hindman in Chicago. (pictured left)
When looking to purchase a cellaret, there are a few things beyond space or personal preference to consider. Condition is a big factor and because these pieces were intended to be used for liquids there is a possibility of damage. Recent refinishing, poor repairs or restoration, and recent damage are all serious factors to take into consideration. Period pieces will have some restoration, cracking, refinishing, veneer, and inlay loss, and while important, those early condition problems are not as much of a factor as poor repairs or recent condition problems. If the set includes original bottles, its important to check for condition of these as well, as years of use results in chips and wear.
Cellarets were an extremely important part of the dining room and the social constructs of the 18th and 19th centuries. Much like today where your home bar can be a symbol of pride, the cellaret acted in much the same way. The dining room, from the furniture to the silver, was used as a way to represent wealth and prominence, and most period cellarets were constructed with excellent craftsmanship. Purchasing one from the American south would be an excellent investment, as would any period cellaret. With so many cellarets available on the market, in different shapes, sizes, and price points, owning this important piece of American decorative history is not beyond anyone’s reach. A cellaret can be easily assimilated into almost any dining room, with most obtained at reasonable prices. To find cellarets currently up for auction check out LiveAuctioneers, ArtFact, eBay, Christies, and Sothebys. For more information on cellarets and the evolution of dining room furniture, see the books in the carousel below for further reading.