The Breakdown

The $15,000 File Cabinet

By Frances Dodds
October 23, 2017

What makes a file cabinet a $15,000 file cabinet? Assessing the value, craftsmanship, origin, and material of a vintage piece from eBay Collective’s Tishu Gallery

It’s hard to think of a more practical, less glamorous piece of furniture than a file cabinet—so what on earth, you might ask, could make this one worth $15,000? Luckily, Tony Shu of Tishu Gallery—who is selling the piece at his shop in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and on eBay Collective—has some answers.

Name recognition. George Nakashima is one of the most influential American designers of the last century, and his Japanese-influenced woodwork practically constitutes a category of collectible furniture in and of itself.

The wood. “Nakashima mostly used American walnut and hickory,” Shu says, “but from time to time he used some very exotic wood, like with this piece, where he used rosewood. You know this is a custom design because not a lot of buyers would use rosewood for a file cabinet. Rosewood is very valuable on its own.”

Photographs by Tony Shu/ Tishu Gallery
Photograph by Tony Shu/ Tishu Gallery

Custom design. Since all of Nakashima’s pieces were handmade, no two are exactly alike. But he did use a number of standard designs over the years, which means that his most valuable pieces are often those that were specially commissioned. “Something custom made specifically for a client is always more valuable,” Shu says.

Original condition. “You’d always rather original condition than restored,” Shu says. “This piece is close to mint condition for being this old—made in 1978.”

Commission drawing with the receipt. “Because his pieces are very expensive, a lot of people who bought originally them kept the receipts,” says Shu. “And sometimes they even have the original drawing by Nakashima for the client, as we do with this cabinet.”

Occasionally you can discover a hidden treasure, but most of the time the seller knows what they have.

Date the piece was crafted: 1978. Shu says that unlike many other designers, because Nakashima’s work was consistent in style and material throughout his life, his pieces aren’t usually priced based on when he made them. However, he points out, it is important to remember that after Nakashima’s death in 1990, his daughter Mira continued with the family business. “There are pieces made by her that are exactly the same model as pieces made by George, but there’s a huge price difference.”

Pro tips. When buying a Nakashima, or any piece of high-end woodwork, online always make sure to ask the dealer to FaceTime, or send pictures from many angles and in many different types of light. Some customers, Shu says, ask him to take pictures of the insides of drawers, or standing next to the piece so they can get a clear idea of its scale.

With Nakashima pieces, specifically, Shu explains, it’s a common expectation that a dealer will present authentication, because the George Nakashima Studio kept a very meticulous record of transactions that go all the way back to the ‘50s.

But mostly, Shu says—educate yourself, and be realistic! “Occasionally you can discover a hidden treasure, but most of the time the seller knows what they have,” he says. “Don’t just think you can get something cheap and it’s great. It doesn’t really work that way.”

Photographs by Tony Shu/ Tishu Gallery
Photograph by Tony Shu/ Tishu Gallery