I will use the terms: “fake” referring to a completely made phony; fraud: designates an antique that has been altered, misattributed, or otherwise discussed or misrepresented as what it is not. The path to the genuine is passing by way of all the frauds.
This object was made from scratch to fool you. It is the object many buyers fear most but is in fact the one they need fear least. After most fakes are assembled, they are attacked by denting, bruising and gouging out areas of some primitive furniture to simulate being handmade. One will also find excessive wear marks added, generally being much over done and sometimes in the wrong areas as compared to the original being copied. In general when examining original crisp edges on wooden objects, they have only been slightly worn from wear and the ravages of time when compared to a faker who tends to over-round these areas, unconsciencely going to excesses of the original hoping to make his point.
I will use a hypothetical example of a chair; once built to exacting standards to copy the original, it is dismantled and each component is burned over an open fire to imitate wear. The char is then removed and bleached to remove every trace of carbon. The chair is reassembled and presented with a thin coat of black paint. It is then coated with a wash coat of water/white glue and while still tacky covered in dust removed from a house vacuum cleaner. When it is dry, it is waxed and prepared to be smoked. The chair is elevated over a steel drum with a roaring fire inside; this dry’s and browns the wood. This process also results in checking, warping and twisting of some of the components, thus an enhancement of age. The next step is to remove the smell of smoke from the chair, bathing in concentrated salt water and then in bleach baths. This could be repeated as many times as desired to add-libb more damage. Then a piece of back splat is removed to impart simulated major damage. Only after being dunked in the sea and pounded by the surf for a while was the chair deemed ready. Hence faking is not an easy business, it takes excessive time, effort, planning, creativity and deviance. So what was gained from this process? Probably, some sort of revenge to an individual or group.
This object could be sold for little money to an antique dealer, say $100., who could in turn sell it many times over, possibly fetching at the final retail end say $10,000. Each time the item is being sold-up each dealer or auction is proudly referring to the last’s provenance.
Antique dealers, like everyone else, are less wary of cheap finds and can be encouraged by very low prices to delude themselves into thinking the “Antique” is a steal. All buyers should be wary of the enticement of the obviously underpriced. The first rule of antique shopping: beware of the “it’s –a-steal” impulse. Someone else is doing the stealing. The market value of antique furniture generally does not allow fair payment for such talent, time, skill, imagination, and perseverance as the degree of faking just explained.
But how about an old fake? Fifty to seventy five years ago, making fakes was economically worthwhile; fortunately, the old fake usually suffers from its age, and you benefit. As years pass hoaxing will become more apparent. The ravages of time after a premature aging reveal rather then conceal, as the wood shrinks and moves, the finish changes, and as more is learned about genuine antiques, the fake comes to look more “antiqued” than “antique”.
Producing a New Object From Old Parts
Combining elements from one form to create another is a common fraud. Many old pieces of period furniture are taken apart and reconstituted into an other object, such as the turnings from an old spinning wheel can form a tripod candle stand base. Floor and wall boards and other architectural elements are irresistible to furniture fakers. The beautiful wooden boards that were leaves for nineteenth-century dining tables are routinely reborn as tabletops, drawer fronts and or case sides. Fakers devise wondrous ways of remaking old parts into antiques. Their imaginations are bound only by the availability of old wood. The disastrous World War II bombings of Britain proved to be a boon to English craftsmen engaged in the old parts/new objects trade.
A variation of the old parts/new objects is the made up set. Some sets of chairs are assembled- that is, composed of chairs from two or more sets. The more variations of chairs in a set, the less value the assemblage. Another type of made up set is the enlarged set. Often a set of chairs was enlarged with new reproductions, copied directly from one of the old chairs. Many of these sets were enlarged long ago. The additions may have been made not to deceive but to accommodate more dinner guests, but don’t let that deceive you today. Every chair must be examined, for enlarging was common practice.
The longer ago a set was enlarged, the more valuable the added members. Two copies added in 1780 to 10 Chippendale chairs made in 1760 will probably go unnoticed, and that is just fine. All are period chairs. If the chairs were added a century later, the new ones are 19th century reproductions and should be evaluated as such. When all of the set but one seems to be of one age, make sure that the several are the odd chairs. The antique may be the single.
In this category we find the lower part of a high chest that passes as a dressing table; a high chest reconstituted from a remnant needing cabriole legs and an upper case; the high chest top that became a chest of drawers; and the flap top high top high chest that gained a pediment because pedimented high chests bring higher prices. You may even find a new case built around four old legs. And that’s just high chests.
In some shops not very long ago, a bustling business was done in slenderizing. Bureaus were made narrower because narrow cases sold better than wide ones. The chest was remade to suit a taste for slender cases have little value now as an antique.
The most common way to enhance old furniture has been to add carving, and the most commonly added carving had been the shell or fan. A newly carved fan on a plain case can quickly move it out of the antique shop in which it had become a fixture.
Forged or misread inscriptions, added labels, and the like have been used to enhance the value of an antique by bestowing upon it a history it never had. The otherwise genuine antique becomes a fraud when labeled with a lie.
Marrying Period Pieces
Married pieces are double cased objects that did not start life together, but have been joined in matrimony for financial gain. Some marriages took place long ago. These partners usually age unequally, and can usually spot the aged matchmaking. Other marriages are fresh and easily recognizable.
When a bookcase-the top of what was one a desk and bookcase-survives without its desk, it is of comparatively little value. Immediately a search begins for a suitable desk. Suitable entails correct dimensions, compatible if not identical wood, preferably but not always the same style (the customer may not know any better), and ideally the same area of manufacture. (But matchmakers seldom wait for the ideal mate).
Innumerable upper cases of high chests have become separated from their bases over the years, and the two parts have since gone different ways.
A Marriage One Old One New
Not every dealer has the patience to wait for a mating piece for a double- case. To hasten the turn over of stock and to accommodate customer tastes, many a new bookcase have been made for what was originally simply a desk. The top board can testify to its single past, this will remain unfinished under the bookcase top, it will show.
In considering the value of the marriage, evaluate them as two separate entities, for that’s what it really is. This is generally less desirable then the mating of two odd pieces, because half is really a new reproduction.
Englishman With an American Address
The Englishman who busied themselves making antique furniture with wood salvaged from bombed-out buildings after World War II were not new to the trade. In the early 20th century, American tourists seeking their ancestral roots in Britain brought home boatloads of “17th century” English fakes. A joke among English furniture makers is that the survival rate for 18th century easy chairs in Britain is so high that there are more of them today then there were in the 18th century.
Many English fakers throughout the last 150 years built fakes out of old wood, which copied American designs. These objects over the last 100 years have found their way into American antique shops. If you asked the majority of these dealers the origin of these objects, a common reply would be, “not sure if it’s American or British”. Hence much British furniture passes as American furniture. Wood is one clue to origin; style is another; construction also helps.
Reproductions Honestly Made But Now Misrepresented
A reproduction is an object made in an old style, in admiration and honor of that old style, and never intended to be presented to a buyer as an antique. Some reproductions are copied from antique examples; others are based on antique styles, with the craftsman using varying amounts of imagination.
Old reproductions cause concern lest the age they have acquired can make them appear antique. In dealers’ language, the honest presentation of an old reproduction is, “It has some age”. This is not misrepresentation unless the reproduction is completely new. New reproduction, of course, looks new and cannot pass as “having some age” unless the buyer fails to examine the furniture.
Most old reproductions (Wallace Nutting) were made with modern tools in shops utilizing modern methods. These techniques of construction are clear and obvious evidence that the reproductions are just that. These were never intended as fakes; the wood was finished in the manner, with the materials and to the sheen that was popular at that time. The age of such finishes is so evident today that our chief concern is that we might overlook a good antique hidden under a 1920’s refinishing.
Some reproductions are labeled or branded by the maker; others are not. Some maker’s labels or brands have been obliterated in an attempt to pass off an old reproduction as an antique. Its unfortunate that the object has lost its mark of the reproducer for it could have brought added value to the piece of furniture. Wallace Nutting reproductions are bringing extraordinary prices, almost rivaling those of the antiques they emulate.
If the reproduction has been made by hand with antique tools, or if the furniture is a fake created long ago, there will be no evidence of machine construction to give it away. This makes these objects difficult to identify. Most old fakes and old handmade reproductions were not copied line for line, measure for measure, tool for tool, piece from small piece from the original. Something of the taste of the time of production always creeps into the product. Always look for: proportions, finish, materials and in the design details.
Usually the proportions of the reproductions as a whole or of its several parts are not consistent with those of period pieces, so you need to know the proportional relationships found on genuine examples.
Most often the finish applied to a reproduction is whatever type was commonly used at the time the furniture was made, not the sort used in the period being simulated. The faked antique finish has since aged; having a different past than the genuine, it now has a different appearance. So you need to be familiar with finishes. It is vital that one learns which woods were used for building furniture, whether it is from what country or regions or quote certain school or families of cabinetmakers. Also, the eye and hand must become very familiar with changes of design details over time in different regions and countries, put the study time in to compare and contrast these. Out of ignorance, craftsman in 1920 might have placed a Boston-style high chest on New York style legs and finished it with a Philadelphia style pediment. In creating reproductions, in making fakes, and in remaking or repairing antiques, lack of knowledge of regional design variations was a common cause of error and is now a giveaway.
Although it is most unlikely that the possibility does exist that a fake or reproduction was copied exactly from a model, was constructed by hand in the ancient ways, has aged so it now looks old enough to be of the period, and has escaped all the influences of its time of manufacture that might reveal its true nature. It is possible for you to be fooled, though it is unlikely.
A Reproduction For What It Is
The honest reproduction is, to an extent, marred by the pitfalls of inaccuracy in reproduction just mentioned. Some odd quirk in proportions or design spoils its appearance; the several elements of its design do not really belong together because it is trying to be all things at once. Often the quality of the wood is not as fine as in a period antique. The finish does not look old. To find a really convincing reproduction-and there are some-can take longer then to find the antique.
Repairs On An Original Object
Antique furniture deteriorates with use and time. Repairs are needed, sometimes frequently and repeatedly. Discerning repairs and recognizing them as such (not mistaking them for enhancements or remakes) is not always easy. Also, all repairs are not equal. Some are fake while others are easily accepted and some are even welcomed. For example a tall case clock that has been standing for over 300 years has developed severe foot problems. One of the design features of feet was to protect the bottom of the case from the floor and its dangers, protecting it from vulnerable moisture, vermin, decay, breakage and loss.
If the case stands on four new feet, one must question whether the replacements are accurate replicas. If the case has only one new foot, and the three originals show to be exact duplicates, your problem has vanished. The repair of the new matching replacement foot is legitimate. Or, on the other hand, if three of the feet are exact replicas and only one foot is original, the situation and value are not very different than with 3 old feet and one new one. The propriety of a repair can be validated by just one original foot that assures that the replacements are proper copies.
Many repairs are not accurate restoration and may not be acceptable. At some point a repaired genuine antique mutates into a remade object. The clock we just mentioned, if we unknowingly find it with 4 new feet and of a different style then of the original, this is a remade object.
Detective Tools Must Be Acquired
Time was precious in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much more so than in our day of labor saving mass vacationing mentality. Inhabitants toiled far more hours a week then we do. The assigning of different tasks to men and women was an attempt to make more efficient use of the family’s labor. Throughout the preindustrial era, time was tied to productivity. A craftsman in a one room shop would not waste any efforts in his day nor let his apprentices do so.
A furniture maker, frugal with his labor, did not paint or stain any wood that did not show. For example, staining the inside of drawers, backboards or other secondary applications was a waste of labor, time and materials. Painting and staining, however, are not a waste of labor for a faker wanting to cover up his handiwork.
The original maker of an antique did not smooth any surfaces that did not require smoothing. The back of the chest, the bottom of the drawer, the insides of the seat rails – all areas that are generally not seen – were left rough, with the visible marks of the wood-workers planes, or even those of the sawyer’s blade. If you see a backboard that has been finished, smoothed, waxed, shellacked, or varnished, you know it is not original to the antique. We benefit from the craftsman’s need to do everything as expeditiously as possible, to do nothing the hard way, because you can examine his product for his hallmark; economy of labor.
The fake making of an antique and not just a piece of furniture, could always afford to spend the extra time and effort on what the period craftsman had to do as efficiently as possible. The evidence of this extra expenditure testifies to post-period work.
As you examine an antique, analyze a mental reconstruction and try to determine how, why and where on the object the craftsman utilized his time. Consistency is related to economy of labor. If a man or shop made drawers a certain way, it would be uneconomical to use his labor to vary this technique. When furniture was being produced in a shop with a few craftsmen, the man who made one drawer for a Chippendale tall chest of drawers made them all, he may not have not been the carver, but he made the drawers. With each piece or set look for consistency of construction. Drawer construction in the upper case should match that of the lower case; if they don’t you are looking at a married piece. If hand plane marks are not the same on the inside of all four bed rails, you could have a marriage of two beds, or at least an increase in size.
Your eyes are not enough. Be tactile; become familiar with passing your hand over surfaces, moldings, carvings and edges. Touch is a keen sense of variation, use it. You must understand at times consistency was relegated to components in a piece. In a lot of large shops in the 18th century, you could have had multiple carvers or turners. If we examine a Jacobean arm chair as an example; possibly one carver would carve all the crest rails and another back splat, so you should get to the point where you, can using your hands, determine the difference between the two carver’s hands. So if you have a period set of these chairs we will be looking for consistency of one hand carving all the crest rails and the other carving all the splats, if not we may have replaced components, a reproduction or an added to set.
Variations in contour may give the appearance of inconsistency or thickness variations, whether it is one drawer side to another or different thicknesses of identically placed spindles on chairs. These variations are not the result of inconsistent workmanship but rather speedy, casual craftsmanship. A piece may be a high value item in your collection but it was just furniture to the man who produced it and to his client, who, not living in a world of machine-made identical products, was not accustomed to identical, interchangeable components. At the same token, the division of labour was well established by 1710 in the furniture industry. And more often then not, apprentice driven shops, produce high quality and consistency. Of course this would have seen a great variance with the single country craftsmen. In the end you must put yourself into an 18th century craft, business and survival mindset to understand their consistency of construction.
I recommend putting a kit or briefcase together with the tools for your detective work.
1. Magnifying glass at least 3.5 times the power
2. Jewelers eye loupe, 10 powers
3. Clamp light with a 150 watt bulb or greater, a 500 watt if possible
4. White cotton conservation gloves
5. A tape measure
6. A 6″ square
7. Calipers for measuring turnings
8. Basic wood and veneer samples if you’re having difficulty identifying
9. Stubby screwdrivers, different sizes and configurations
10. Tack lifter, wide putty knife, sharp knife and long nose pliers
11. Rare earth magnet, writing utensils and pad
12. Envelopes or very small plastic bags for any samples
13. Black light, telescoping mirror, and a halogen torch
14. Camera in your phone
15. Small vials of solvents; alcohol, lacquer thinner and a mixture of dish detergent with water and ear swabs
Labels, Inscriptions and Attributions
Labels, meant to be glued to furniture, are rarely dated and usually have a decorative border on all sides. Billheads are not labels. Designed as the top part of a sales receipt, they were not meant to be glued to furniture; they are dated; and as a billhead is only part of a bill, they have no decorative border. The cautious collector does not accept a billhead as a label. Never be distracted from a through inspection by anything, including documentation.
For experienced buyers in the antique market, an identifying mark or document, rather than solving a mystery adds to it. It doubles the doubts, broadens the investigation, and increases the assignment because both furniture and mark have to pass scrutiny. Because the client pays for both the object and the documentation, check both.
As long as documented items bring higher prices, as they should and always will, documentation will surface and adhere to them. The challenge for the authenticator, then, is to distinguish between the honest documentation from the deceptive.
Identifying Problematical Attributions
The most common false identities occur in attribution, usually verbal and made without benefit of any documentation. Attributions may be to a particular craftsman or to a place of origin; of either type, they are routinely and cavalierly offered because they add value. Misattribution is an egregious pitfall, yet fear of it has never daunted the owners of objects, antique dealers, brokers, auctioneers or consignment shop keepers.
Attributions can be innocently inaccurate or intentional. The majority of misattributions are fostered more by a seller’s wishes than by deception. Many times misattribution is purposeful and enjoys cycles of fashion.
In America, in the early twentieth century, when Federal furniture was especially sought after, emulated and reproduced the big names of the Federal era – Seymour, Phyfe and McEntire – became affixed to Boston, New York and Salem furniture respectively. The Seymour’s and Phyfe’s had large workshops, but they also had many competitors, spawning many out of their own shops after apprenticeships ceased. McEntire had a small shop and would have needed an exponential amount of additional hands to produce all the carvings that have been attributed to him. Mable Swan published in 1931 evidence that McEntire’s attributions for the most part were actually executed by Boston craftsmen. Therefore the majority of the finest carved work of Federal Salem was not produced by McEntires hand, but this did not influence greed driven antique dealers and auction houses to promote the opposite and brainwashed collectors continue to conj our in McEntire’s somewhat fallacious legacy.
Regional attributions are more accurate but lack the appeal of the personalization that comes from a maker’s name. Antiques dealers are not alone in attributing falsities of regional styles to one man or shop. After Vernon C. Stoneman, in reassessing and debunking much of the Seymour’s attribution, many major museums continue to display many of their objects with false attributions. These cases are so dissimilar to Seymour construction; they can in no way be attributed to their shop. With some museums still guilty about Semourizing, many antique have no qualms about doing the same. So any variety, of Boston Federal work runs the risk at being called Seymour. If interiors are painted a known Boston blue or it contains lunette inlays (By the way which were available to every Boston craftsman at the local supply shop) Seymour will be named with authority.
Our eagerness as authenticators to determine the validity of attributions is especially paramount today, with such a plethora of information be spewed on – line about attributions. Less positive information raises instantaneously wit just the listing of a craftsman name, leading to mostly false name leads of examples of his work being discovered. So strong is the penchant for affixing a name that it is barely stayed by the presentation of contrary facts, such that a name is not that of a craftsman or even not a name at all?
A legitimate antique should properly be attributed to a craftsman or his shop only after careful comparison has shown it to be closely related to a documented object. The documented antique must have a genuine maker’s signature, brand label or bill of sale, or be unambiguously cited in other papers, such as a journal or family correspondence.
The accomplished authenticator will accept no attribution to a maker for an unmarked piece of furniture unless it can pass three tests;
1. It must be identical in construction to a documented piece
2. The antique has proved to be genuine
3. The said maker has been identified to have been a furniture maker
Identifying construction is easy, ascertaining dovetails, tool marks, drawer assembly etc. As far as the genuine goes. The objective it to avoid being taken by such ploys as transforming the man that owned the furniture in to the cabinetmaker that made it. Extensive lists of craftsman, old newspapers, city directories and published lists, such as birth, death and marriage records are available. Casual attributions are far too prevalent, so be aware. Again, for an attribution of an unmarked piece of furniture to be acceptable,, the piece must be identical in construction to a documented one that has proved to be genuine and whose mark has been ascertained to be that of a furniture maker.
American furnituemakers started signing their work after the revolution. With this came a new economic conditions, and the once ambiguous craftsmen, almost in an arrogant fashion, began applying the signatures and labels to vie for trade, participating in the new free-market economy. Today all of these types of identification have figured in fraud some way.
Leading and Misleading Inscriptions
The most important and exciting marks on furniture are inscriptions. Although there are exceptions, almost all inscriptions are authentic, authentic but not necessarily unambiguous or informative. An inscription penciled under a drawer bottom, “married in the year 1810”. These types of musings generally reveal nothing, because the style and construction of the piece shows that it was fabricated well before that date.
Even an authentic inscription can be a mystery. The most common is a single or just a last name with merely a first initial, a solid but scanty clue. There could be 50 published names as such. When tracking that first initial, you will find it generally matches to the one in a large family of craftsmen.
The ultimate inscription includes; Made by, name, address and date (Perry G., 7 Home Street, Philadelphia 1961), this all the information you could ask for, including the “Made By” which shows who the e craftsman was not the owner.
Owners also signed there furniture as far back as the third quarter of the 18th century. As a result owners of furniture have frequently been dubbed cabinetmakers and so advertised and listed. Desks are typically prone to this in ink or pencil. Long case clocks are marked back as far as the mid-18th century by their repairs. Also, with these types of clocks, their makers are engraved or painted on the dials from about 1650 to 1740 and then it becomes difficult, for retailers either started demanded their names being put on the dials, or they would remove the craftsman name and put their name on themselves. Around 1740, there seems to be a shift in marketability, where towns and cities became more of a focal point for retail purchasing, thus some craftsmen had one less thing to worry about. In addition these long case clocks were generally never signed, many times being made by local coffin makers when dying was slow. Long case clocks were marriages from the start, case makers may offer 3 or 4 styles, movement makers possibly 2, dial makers 4-5 varieties, hence the client and later the retailer would go from one shop to another mixing and matching to his liking. A second marrying sometimes occurred as British clocks made their way across the sea whether it be on a sailing or steam vessel, the transporting of weights, pendulums, mechanisms and cases at times got mixed-up or lost by the time of reaching the final destination.
Cabinetmakers, when inscribing furniture, used ink, or pencil or the marking chalk that was always on hand. When you find chalk inscription in old script, make sure you are seeing what is actually there, not what you wish were there. The desire to find a craftsman name can lead to highly imaginative misreading’s. Doesn’t let part of an inscription or other distract you from carefully interpreting the whole?
Cabinetmakers regularly marked their work with notes for themselves, such as “upper”, “back”, “left” and a plethora of dimension’s, times and dates. In the last 25 years this was common practice in my studio. One does not want to confuse bottom for Boston. When deciphering chalk marks, look for cabinetmaking notes and terms first.
In many shops the workers and apprentices would sign pieces and date them. It appears that there was no standard in doing this, no similar script, size, etc.
With regards to labels, if it is possible, take your knife and gently lift the edge or corner of the label to see if the wood under it is the same color as the surrounding wood, if so the label is a new addition. Wood darkens with age when exposed to air and light. Sometimes 18th century billheads had an emblem printed in the center of the page, this could be cut out and used as a label. Also, an original label should show wear and fraying at the sides and edges. Fresh cut paper can be examined under the microscope to determine age and type of cut, a slice or a ripping action.
Labels exposed to air and light become brittle. Original paper labels, unless they are in a protected spot, rarely remain intact on furniture that has been in use for over a century. The wood moves, the glue dries, the paper may lift, and the edges become vulnerable to breaking off. When they do, the wood underneath, paler then the surrounding wood because it has been protected from air and light, begins to darken. If bits of paper lift-up and break off at different times, wood of various shades may show around the remnant of the label, with the lightest tones in the areas of the most recent losses.
Branded furniture until recent years was assumed to have been marked by the maker. Many men, primarily shippers, who in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, performed the beginning of Americas International commerce, used branding irons and or hammered dies to mark not only shipping creates but most household items as well. An owners name can enhance an antique, sometimes by locating a town and suggesting an approximate date for the furniture; a makes name surely adds to an object’s desirability and increases its price significantly. In some circles, the tendency is still to see a makers name in each newly discovered mark.
Old mistakes endure. Once an imaginary cabinetmaker has been created out of whole cloth, he clings to life by every thread. In the 19th century, the use of maker’s brands as well as stencils and printed labels became common. Many producers of Windsor’s and other volume-production chairs branded their work, most using a first initial and a last name. Try to ascertain if a mark is that of a maker or an owner; look for confirming information.
If the information you seek is not available in any printed source, contact an expert in the field. There are many, and they are not in hiding, just search the web.
No doubt in the early twentieth century many an antiques buyer was sold a bill of goods when told that a bill of sale or the upper part of one, a billhead, belonged with the antique being sold. If a bill of sale is presented to you as an antique be particular.
1. Do not accept a cut off portion of a larger bill as acceptable documentation. The bill should be as intact as a document of its age can be expected to be.
2. Require that the bill have as solid a history s the furniture. The latter must be traceable from the date on the bill.
3. Accept only a bill that is unambiguous, one that is clearly associated with the furniture it purports to document.
It is so hard to prove that the bill of sale has not been in fashion in recent years. And, as trends are cyclical, bills as documentation may return to fashion, engendering more doctored bills. Be on guard for all fraudulent identification, be it in script, label, brand or bill.
Whereas today’s collectors search for the pristine, early in the 20th century collectors sought the unusual. Equating the odd with the outstanding, they enthusiastically pursued unique examples and fell prey to altered antiques. Furniture craftsmen, alert to the desires of customers for the eccentric, made an industry of making the irregular. So, when presented with the unusual, look around at rarity and migrate back to basic styles.
In antique furniture, rare pieces are usually pieces that never were. Genuine pieces fall within a style period and or a design tradition, each reflects the era and the area of its origin. Smart collectors look for the typical and if they can afford it, for the exemplary outstanding object that is the best in example of design but not a deviant from it. Therefore look for the typical, and stay away from the unusual.
Training Your Eye
To spot a pristine antique you need to have an educated eye that can detect telltale deviations from the norm in style and design. One must learn the different furniture styles, idiosyncratic variations from different regions and basic regional design characteristics from America, Europe and Britain. Eye training is rigorous, for it demands looking at as many examples as possible. Examine in major museums, including small historical museums that may contain pristine examples of local origin. Review antique stores long before you are prepared to buy. Look at auction previews and catalogs before you are skilled enough to be a participant in the actual sale. And study books and the internet, for thy offer access to a multitude of examples. The following are four style training steps;
1. THE QUICK SURVAY-To study furniture, it is important to become familiar with at least some of the terms for its several parts. As you look over photos, focus on the parts as well as on each piece of furniture as a whole. Unfortunately, older books, though not only the older ones, contain much that is flawed or fraudulent. Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury, probably the most frequently perused book on antique furniture. Look at the object as a whole, then at several details. How does each contribute to the general appearance?
Successful designs integrate components so that they enhance the whole. Even unsuccessful designs exhibit some pattern relating parts and whole. Patterns of designs change over time and over distance. There former are called styles; the latter, regional variations. Old reproductions often mix styles; yesterdays fakes and frauds frequently mix regional characteristics.
2. LOOKING IN BOOKS, no matter how many, cannot alone suffice, but books prepare you to track down evidence in a museum. If possible select a museum with a fairly large collection of American and English furniture. As you have already done in looking at pictures, first view each object in its entirety, then step forward to see each of its several elements at close range. Only then should you consult the label. In your first overall view, while gauging the e delicacy or heftiness of the design, its curviness or recti linearity, note how weight and line are combined. A boxy pattern may be broad and ponderous or slender and attenuated. Some rounded shapes and flattened balls seem heavy; vertical ovals appear light. Some legs appear to bear their load easily; others seem to strain to support great heft. Concentrate on distinct elements of design, the surface decoration, legs, feet, hardware, motifs, shapes, and woods. Each time you look at an antique ask yourself:
WHAT IS THE DATE? OR WHAT IS ITS STYLE PERIOD? Date an object from its latest feature, not by any older one that may endure and, years after its heyday; be found in combination with newer and more stylish elements. You must decide on the period in order to answer the next questions.
DO THE PROPORTIONS CONFORM TO THOSE OF THE PERIOD? A common alteration to antique cases early in this century was to diminish their size to make them more suitable for smaller twentieth-century houses and apartments. Old how-to literature included instructions for narrowing such typically broad cases as Chippendale chests and Federal sideboards. Many makers of old reproductions copied period details but catered to their contemporaries taste in scale. Rare proportions are particularly suspected.
WAS THE FORM OF FURNITURE MADE IN THAT ERA? Was a Chippendale TV table made in that period? This question helps you quickly identify some reproductions and a few antiques of the old part/new object type, such as the lower half of a seventeenth-century cupboard posing as a sideboard.
WHAT ARE THE MOST STYLISTIC DETAILS ON THE ANTIQUE? If anything was added after the antiques original production, it is likely to fall into this category.
IS THE CONSTRUCTION CONSISTANT WITH THE PERIOD?
WERE THE TOOLS USED THOSE OF THE PERIOD?
3. THE DETAILED STUDY OF REGIONAL VARIATIONS Books and magazines provide good training in style recognition and regional peculiarities. It is important to accustom your eye to regional styles, to see the characteristics that object from one area end to have on common. All furniture makers developed patterns distinctive to their locales. A Newport block front chest with Philadelphia carvings is a suspect.
One does not need a science lab to pin down the material evidence provided by wood, wood tools, wood fasteners, and wood fastenings. Materials and furniture making techniques have changed over the years, these innovations are datable. A few dates memorized can put you at a major advantage when trying to date. i.e., cut nails were first manufactured in 1790 and oak was split during the 17th century not sawn. You can date the start of a new technology but not the end of an old one. Old technology is seldom lost. Craftsmen can still cast nails and split wood. So, never use the presence of an old technique or material as proof of antiquity.
The journey a nail took into the wood substrate can give evidence if it was there for a long time. As a process of corrosion, as the wrought nail oxidizes it blackens the surrounding wood. Also examine the indentation of the head (compression) into the wood surface; old wrought nails leave an irregular shape. Iron corrosion rings are larger and darker when oak is the substrate due to its high tannin content. Carbon dating (Carbon-14, measuring radioactivity) is appropriate for prehistoric determinations, but does not help with age determinants of antique furniture. Infra-red lighting or photography can aid us in determining original notes or sketches particularly under a painted surface. Radiography or “X” rays lets us see inside the wood to spot hidden nails or screws holding a joint together (your local vet or dentist may aid you with a small fee of x-raying hand able items). Ultraviolet or black light can show restoration, over painting or added make-up for faking.
Wood is the superstructure and conduit for nutrients of a tree. A tree trunk or branch can be thought of as a handful of drinking straws, hollow and structural causeways. The direction and visualness of the cellular direction is the grain. A longitudinal section of wood is known as strait grain and a cut perpendicular to this is called the end grain (cross-section). Wood joints are very stable when glued long grain to long grain and long grain to perpendicular long grain, but any joint comprising an end grain cut, is weak and will fail. These adhesive potentialities of wood shows the constraints, those furniture makers, repairers, enhancers and over-restorers have to work with. Wood technology controlled the operations in furniture shops of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As a tree grows larger in diameter, first a clear layer called early wood and then a layer of late wood forms as the year goes by. These combinations of layers are known as the annual rings, they can be seen in cross-section to determine a trees age or in an angled cut as arcs, and longitudinal sections of strait wood of different bands of color and density. The pattern or rings that the annual rings impart is called the grain. Grain is the characteristics of a woods structure and figure is the quality of its beauty. Rays a lines that radiate out from the center of the tree, these are perpendicular the annual rings. These are brought to the height of their beauty by the sawyer who quarter saws prevalent ray infested woods such as Oaks, imparting a wonderful figured fleck. Softwoods (conifers) have resin canals (tiny paths which the sap runs, visible to the naked eye).
Every wood has its own distinctive cellular characteristics and distinctive appearance to the unaided eye. It is important you learn the visual structure of these woods in order to make a quick identification or starting point for placing an object at time and origin. Old growth forests of the same species will tend to have a much different graining structure, color and pore diameter as compared to contemporary growth. The visual identification of wood aides in determining species, and makes distinctions of repairs, enhancements, marriages and remade objects. A more in depth lecture is for another class in this series; one of the better publications on the subject is termed “Understanding Wood” by DR. Bruce Hoadly.
When you are doubtful of a woods identity, a professional laboratory can aid in this process. One just needs to provide a small scraping from a scalpel, always take this from a hidden area, a pointed edge or the inside of a corner. Place the sample into a plastic bag and label it. Samples can be sent to the US Department of Agriculture, Forrest Products Laboratory, One Gifford Pinchot, and Madison, Wisconsin, 53705.
Hardwoods and softwoods play different roles in old cabinetry. Although furniture makers made some common, inexpensive furniture entirely out of softwood, they generally combined hardwood and softwood in an object. They chose a hardwood as the primary wood, the wood that everyone sees, the wood that was given a clear film finish. But for the back of the chest and the bottoms of its drawers, cabinetmakers favored local softwoods. The wood that was not seen and consequently was not finished, the secondary wood, was usually soft unless a hardwood scrap was lying around in the shop or a hardwood would better meet the structural demand. Thus a chair maker might have used pine, softwood, for the corner blocks to brace a seat but chosen maple, a hardwood, for the seat rails that were to be upholstered and had to hold rows of nails. Woods that are soft, whether they are a softwood, or from a so-called” hardwood” like poplar, nevertheless actually soft, were cheap for the furniture maker to acquire and easiest for him to work.
Softwoods and hardwoods wear differently: the softwood is less dense and more prone to wear away than hare wood. When used as a secondary wood and left unfinished, it can be especially vulnerable to wear.
Listen to furniture when you move any of its parts. The sound of rubbing tells you that wear is occurring. Whenever you see signs of normal wear (bottoms of a drawer), listen to find out if the wood is still being worn. If it is not, look for repairs or replacements. Both are common in the places where wood makes contact with wood.
Check the corresponding points of contact, i.e. for example drawer sides often rub on the drawer divider below as the drawer is pulled out or pushed in. A worn spot on the top of the drawer divider should line up with the worn bottom of the drawer side. Their points of wear should correspond; the extent of wear may not. If the depth of wear is not reciprocal, consider the woods. Finished hardwood is likely to rub raw at a point of contact, while unfinished softwood wears away. White pine drawer sides will wear down more than a quarter of an inch while running over a maple divider that is merely rubbed smooth or shiny.
Check points of contact for the possibility of repair. Drawer sides are often pieced out. Badly worn drawer dividers, too, may have been neatly, almost invisibly pieced. Since wood is easily glued with the grain, it is an excellent material for letting in small replacement pieces. Pieced repairs, whether for appearance sake or to enable the furniture to function better may be acceptable or even desirable to the collector, but they indicate hard or extensive use in the past. Other instances of heavy use and laborious restoration should be looked elsewhere in the furniture. Evidence of consistent wear to the wood will testify to honest repair; inconsistent wear will finger a remade object or a case of old parts/ new object.
Beware of a pieced repair on a hardwood divider that is not accompanied by a repair on the corresponding softwood drawer side. The drawer may not be new to its location, the drawer side may be new to the drawer, or the whole drawer may simply be new.
Wood changes as it ages, presenting clear evidence of the passage of time. In addition normal household use wears furniture woods, supplying the antiquer with proof of age. As you will examine furniture more closely, you will begin to differentiate between the wear of normal use and the intentional marring of fakers. The wood in furniture changes whether the furniture is used or not. Unfinished wood darkens with age. Darkened secondary woods are hallmarks of time and can be read s clearly as a label. Learn how to recognize the color of new wood, old wood and the appearance of a deceptive stain.
New wood is very light in color. The many facets of the empty cells on the woods surface reflect the light, making the raw wood bright to the eye. Finished wood is pale because the clear finish fills the pores. The empty pores of unfinished wood are exposed to air and pollutants, it travels into them and they become dark with time. Unless one hermetically seals, furniture, secondary wood color changes to the darker, creating those mellowed hues that collectors look for as they examine backs, bottoms and insides of furniture.
The shades of aging vary with the specie of wood and its duration of exposure to light, heating and cooling, environmental pollutants and human tactical contact. Different degrees of darkening can be found; if a chest is against the wall for many years, its back will not darken as much as its drawer bottoms, the small interior desk drawers behind the prospect door which is virtually never opened will darken very little, and the underside of the bottom drawer of a chest (if the chest itself has no bottom) will darken considerably more due to much more exposure to air, temperature changes and in this case dust pollutants. Always ask yourself where the air exposure is, and look for those dark surfaces.
Finished surfaces, those whose wood pores are filled with a clear finish, immediately become somewhat darker than raw wood and then, sneaked from the air, do not age in the same way exposed wood does. With time and exposure to sunlight, a finished rich Mahogany can fade to gold, and, in a century, finished black walnut, really a dark brown color in spite of its name becomes the color of honey.
Because a sealant prevents the darkening of aging wood, the inadvertent presence of a sealant on an unfinished surface, a common occurrence, can offer proof of age. A lost drop of varnish that fell on an otherwise unfinished backboard would seal the wood, preventing the usual darkening. Similarly, glue that oozed from a joint would seal the adjacent unfinished wood, keeping it from darkening. If the finished dripped or oozed in original construction, it would do so onto fresh young wood, and what you would see now beneath dried glue or finish would be far paler then the unglued or unfinished surface beside it. Such two-tone evidence is a welcome sight. If, on the other hand, the wood beneath the drip or glue is dark, and the finishing or gluing was done on an already old object.
When wood darkens, it does so only on the surface; the wood beneath remains protected from the air. Newly exposed wood, freshly sawn, cut, or abraded is light, almost bright, with much of the look of the timber from the mill originally. Fakers, restorers, repairers and improvers may use old wood, but they must cut it here and there to size, introducing new surfaces of fresh wood.
To mask the e bright new wood, fakers use stains or dyes, sometimes washes of coffee or teas. Any staining of an unfinished surface is a sign of trouble. Many times the stain a faker used to cover his tracks will stand out more today after time then it once blended in originally. Stained and natural surfaces age differently. Under high light wattage a stained and naturally aged wood will visualize differently. The stain surface appears duller and more opaque.
The faker’s “Wormholes” are drilled or forced in the wood surface using an all, whereas the woodworm chews its way out. A female woo-boring beetle enters a crevice in the wood (loos joint etc.) or bores just subsurface and injects her microscopic eggs, and the larva that hatches burrows about the wood, generally along the grain, more often than around joints internally where the use of sweet hide glue abides, thus creating extensive tunnels. Only when it has matured to a beetle does it eat its way out, and only then does a hole appear on the woods surface. Woodworms do not eat a path in a strait line or make holes that are perfectly round, only drills do that. Use a needle to probe the worm holes. Probing will lead strait into a drilled hole, possibly going deep and coming to an abrupt stop. If the needle barely enters the wood and starts to take an abrupt turn, you know a worm was once there. Also, under magnification you can determine if the hole is round.
These worms were called powder post beetles. They still may be in antiques today coming via Europe, and once here have been known to infest objects for over 75 years. They really enjoy maple, beech and walnut but not mahogany. Fakers make it a habit of using, old, worm-eaten wood, but in the reworking process by surface-planning, they expose the tunnels to the surface, this is a dead give-away, worms never eat along the surface. This is always suspect.
New wormholes are, of course light and may still contain powder; it has the same color and consistency of the face wood. Old holes are dark and sometimes filled with was. Novice collectors may deem woodworm holes evidence of antiquity; savvy collectors see no proof of age but, instead, a probability of structural weakness. A modest blow can crumble affected wood. Woodworm is difficult to eradicate, even with the help of a professional exterminator, a fumigation chamber, and lethal chemicals.
Acquiring An Eye And Expertise
A trained eye can be built out of the initial response to an object. A connoisseur is literally “one who knows”, and the term is used for anyone with scholarly and aesthetic expertise in the arts. A true connoisseur can illuminate an object with a wide range of knowledge and critical judgments, about its authorship, date, the society which produced it, its use(especially if it is an object from the decorative arts), the history of its ownership, the location of related works and an assessment of its quality and condition. He may even know market price. Thus a good eye is one that is backed up by knowledge, supported by a good visual memory, and independent enough to make individual judgments and fresh observations. An eye which has no scholarship to control its waywardness often makes careless errors of an elementary nature; and an eye which has its independent sensitivity smothered by too much undigested knowledge often fails to notice the unexpected or to see things that have been overlooked.
There are no shortcuts to developing an eye, and contrary to the belief of many young students of the arts, it cannot be done by simply sitting in a library reading books and looking at photographs. In a room for example you might begin by attempting to date pieces to the nearest century; then attempt to give each piece a nationality. As your expertise develops you can increase the difficulty of the questions. What was its use? What is the style? What is the wood? What is the correct terminology for this or that decorative feature? What is the date to the nearest decade? Are there signs of restoration or alteration? Does it have the characteristics of a particular maker or designer? Is it a good example or one of indifferent design and quality?
If you are a genuine beginner start your eye on the best pieces. Not only are the great makers more exciting visually; they are the ones who establish the chief prototypes from which the others are learned; they give you a feel for real quality, an d they give you the chronological framework into which the others fit. An auction room is one of the best places to develop an eye, and certainly an ideal place to refine it. There is a continual changing display of objects. It is very important to gain a through understanding of techniques of production and the basic materials which are used by artists and craftsman. Knowing what techniques were available at a particular time or place is of the greatest possible help in identifying objects correctly., and of course detecting fakes and or forgeries, many of which contain techniques or materials incompatible with the supposed identity of the piece.
The second reason for understanding techniques is aesthetic. Much aesthetic pleasure can be gained by understanding how well an artist or craftsman manipulates his material within its natural limitations and the limits of his craft, an dhow well he marries design and idea with the available materials.
An authenticator with a good eye is often able to recognize quality even though even though he can not immediately identify or date and place the object or work of art in question. Be suspicious of the experts who will only make a judgment on quality when they have discovered only who the artist or craftsman is. Finally, do not fall into the trap of thinking that the be all and end all of expertise is the ability to provide the correct name and date. A true expert will reach such a conclusion only with caution, and only after simulating, assessing an enjoying all the other qualities which the object presents.
A basic knowledge of art history is essential for the well-informed collector, and ovourse many collectors are considerable scholars in their own right. Most serious writing about the visual arts is now undertaken by people with an academic art history qualification.
A successful researcher must always be critical and unwilling to accept anything without good evidence and good reason; patient and persistent in searching for information and unraveling problems; attentive to detail and scrupulous in checking facts; dispassionate in argument and honest in admitting mistakes or accepting unwelcome conclusions. Just remember, no faker, forger or copier can reproduce, however, is the state of mind under which the original artist worked. They can only imitate a style or mannerism, they cannot create it.
The wood in furniture presents proof of passage of time by changing its size; having been composed originally mostly of water, wood dries out over the years and shrinks. When originally built most furniture contained a moisture content of about 20%. This porous material over time loses its moisture(intercellular) to about 85% and then if in a stable and consistent environment will begin the to lose the intracellular moisture(In the cell walls) at this point the wood is almost in a petrified state, with little to no movement. But if the old piece of furniture is near a moist area, its porous cells will absorb and expand in width only. Most of pieces shrinkage occurs in the first 75-100 years, then it just responds to seasonal humidity fluxuations. A shrunk piece will never reattain its original constructed dimensions. This can be seen in table tops, where they are no longer round or square. Ball and claw feet and turnings have become somewhat square. Shrinkage also becomes apparent in a top of a table where the large board has contracted, leaving the ends, which were originally cut to match, still full length and now protruding. If you cannot see the difference you should be able to feel it.
Shrinkage also loosens joints, leaving strips of unfinished surfaces peeking out from the newly separated members. These surfaces if period should show oxidation, not new fresh wood. In veneer work, the veneer shrinks at one rate and the core substrate to which it is glued at another, so the glue gives out and the veneer loosens. The wooded pegs that hold some joints together, though they may not actually not be come loose with age, tend to stand proud of the surface they hold together. This can be viewed or more importantly it can be felt with a simple stroke of the hand.
Other Details To Look For
-APRON-Victorians added a circular apron on the underside of round tabletops, they thought it would prevent warping but it did not.
-CASE BACKS- patination against the wall should always be seen on old furniture. The edges of the back timbers should be black. It is at the back that you will see tell-tale joins that show where timbers have been added. Possibly you should begin your investigative vetting at the back.
-LEG BANDAGE-a bandage consists of four pieces of veneer or wood. It is used to hide a join made when the leg was extended in order to increase the height of the piece.
-TABLE BEARERS-bearers on period tables supporting the top were always tapered and ended far enough in from the end or side of the top so that they could not be seen without bending down to look under the table.
-BRASS PULLS-double –height case pieces would always have the same size escutcheons and the same design of pulls throughout the piece. Old brass had a higher percentage of copper than that of today and in time it would tend to take on a slight greenish hue which modern brass does not achieve.
-BRASS CASTORS-the early brass casters made in the Chippendale era had wheel made of 3or 4 pieces of leather and the hub fitted up into the leg. The brass caster with brass wheels was introduced about 1760.
-CARVING-period carving should be kept above the surface of the rest of the timber and very bold. The 18th century cabinetmaker did not have to economize on timber, so he cut away and down into the timber. Flat or countersunk timber would always have been added at a later date. Around and in old carving there is always patination. Many Chippendale chairs are in fact Late Georgian ones which have been carved at a later stage and ruined in the process. Such carving is inevitably flat or countersunk. The Victorians, who made endless copies of Chippendale, used larger chisels than that of eighteen century workman and these leave different marks.
-CHAIR-ARMS-all the best period cabinetmakers made armchairs by adhering the arms on the corner or side of the back post. They were never adhered to the front of the back post.
-COCK-BEADING-This is a narrow protruding molding, half circular in shape, mainly applied around the four edges of a drawer front. Nearly all drawers from 1720-1800 were finished in this way. The most important thing is that these were always mitered and glued and never nailed.
-COCKELSHELL ORNAMINMENTATION-the cockleshell was a favorite ornament of the Victorians, who when even added to an 18th century piece no doubt increasing awareness to themselves, but reducing the pieces value.
-CROSS-BANDING-whenever used cross banding should be used at right angles to a herringbone inlay, stated differently, this instance is possibly when herringbone inly may have been added to an existing drawer front.
-CABINET DOORS-single cabinet doors should always open to the right. A pair of double doors would always have 3 hinges per door, and where the doors met there would be narrow astragal moldings of wood or brass screwed on not pinned. The molding was to allow for the inevitable shrinkage of the timber of the doors and prevent a visible gap.
-DOUBLE-HEIGHT PIECES-in these pieces the sides of both sections were always made from the same timber, and always the same thickness top and bottom. Grain and color must then be the same. Similarly, the stiles of the doors were the same width in top and bottom sections.
-DRAWERS-when removing the top drawer of a piece the underside of the top should have a paler patination then the balance of the interior secondary woods. No eighteenth century should fill the full depth of the case front to back. Ion all good quality English drawer sides oak was used and the top edges of the sides will be rounded. The thinner the sides the better, optimum is about three eights of an inch.
-BOTTOM BOARDS-up to 1770 the grain of the bottom boards of all drawers ran front to back after that date they ran side to side. To allow for shrinkage the 18th century cabinetmaker made the drawer bottoms out of 2-3 boards. In all genuine period drawers, most bottoms will be split, due to shrinkage over the years. In Victorian times the bottom was made from one piece and screed on not like the earlier being nailed.
-MOULDINGS- if a drawer has corner moldings fixed inside and glued to both sides and bottom, the piece cannot be earlier than 1800.
-DOVETAILS-any difference in the dovetails from one another indicate that the piece has been restored, converted or interfered with in some way. All drawers large and small if handmade will have a scribe mark to show where the dovetail bottom ends. If when you pull out a drawer, you find that it is front heavy, that is, inclined to fall out because of its own weight, you will know that the drawer was originally larger, and now has a much heavier front that is needed. Again drawers never ran to the full depth of a case they stopped about 2 inches from the back allowing air to circulate.
-INLAY-on walnut pieces a herringbone inlay will always run clockwise. Over tome genuine inlay at some point at its inlet circumference will suffer an adhesive failure and show raised areas. Veneer on the inside face of a drawer is a good indication of hiding old hardware holes, hiding holes possibly due to a drawer being reduced in width.
-PATINATION-drawers at times have a patination on the top front sides due to the drawer being pushed in at the sides, oxidizing from the salts and oils from the hands.
-NUMBER OF DRAWERS-eighteen century cabinetmakers was ridged in maintaining their drawer configurations; the bureau had either 2 short and 3 ling drawers, or 4 long drawers, or a dummy top drawer and 3 ling drawers. A bureau book case had, in the bureau part, either; two short and three long drawers or 4 long drawers; or a dummy top drawer and three long drawers. A chest of drawers had either 2 small or 3 long drawers or 4 long drawers. A tall boy had 2 or 3 short drawers and 3 long drawers in the top and three long drawers in the bottom part.
-ESCUTCHEONS-genuine 18th century escutcheons or if of a good copy are tapered on the insetting side and the sides slightly rounded. These castings in the Victorian times tended to be square. In the 18th century all case drawers had escutcheons; many Victorian drawers contained none at all.
-FRET-genuine Chippendale fretwork although thin, approximately one eighth of an inch was laminated, in three ply, imparting strength and the stresses of the wood to be held in check. Frets were cut with a jewelers saw or fret saw, looking under magnification saw marks should remain. The Victorians later stamped out the fret, imparting a polished cross-sectional surface.
-HORIZONTAL RIBBING-if a top ova case piece is serpentine or oxbow, and then the fastening rib below it must be of the same design. Many copies don’t contain a rib at all under the top, having the upper drawer starting on the underside of the top.
-GLAZING-separate lights or panes are used in cupboard doors, no grill work should be applied over a large glazed piece of glass. Glass panes should always be of the same color, having flaws of bubbles and voids resulting from being hand blown. Examine the glazing per-se, generally made out of plaster of Paris with adhesives added for strength, make sure all the glazing color and textures match each other. Also be very observant, glass over time (hand blown) will tend to warp slightly outward from the piece, this is due to molecular oxidation from a different external (more unstable) environment as compared to a constant internal one.
-INLAY-on early 18th century case tops where the veneer is quartered, there is always a herringbone inlay running around the quartering clockwise.
-KEYS-18th century keys are made of steel and have bowed shaped handles. The thinner the bow the more likely it is old.
-LEGS-if a piece of furniture has square tapered legs, only the inside surfaces of the legs are tapered. Legs are always made out of only one piece of timber.
-LOCKS-none of the old locks or doo bolts are stamped with a name or patent number; this came in Victorian times, so, if you notice file marks on the side of the levers, you can be sure that the lock once had a name or patent number there, which had been filed away. Old locks or door-bolt cases will be of brass, but the actual levers and bolts will be of steel and will be square or oblong.
-MARBLE-95% of the time pieces with white marble tops are from the Victorian era, or a top is a replacement. 18thcentury marble tops come in red, pinkish, green mottled almost any color but white.
-NAILS-if the back of a double-heighted piece is nailed, so to should be the bottom. Around the head of the 18thcentury nail should be a black ring or stain in the wood, due to environmental room conditions the iron will corrode. Also these nails should stand just a tad bit proud of the woods surface due to the wood drying out and shrinking.
-SEAT-RAILS-all seat furniture chairs, settees and stools should measure 1’6” from the ground to the top of the upholstery of the seat, weather it has a stuff-over seat or a drop in slip seat. The seat rails are normally 4” deep. Hepplewhite rails are much thinner, so the majority of them in the period are laminated.
Warping, a form of shrinking occurs because a wood log contracts differently in different directions. While the timber does not lose any perceptible length, it shrinks significantly around the circumference of the log. Wood shrinks or warps most when it is green, so boards sawn from newly felled timber are seasoned before they are worked. Many tabletops have warped so much that have become unsightly, unusable and then replaced. For the collector a crooked top is preferable over a replaced one. Inspect wide boards for shrinkage cracks, for filled cracks, and for evidence of reunification. Least acceptable is a cracked, warped wide board replaced with many narrow boards. In period pieces, expect one-piece tabletops, case tops, and case sides; accept two-piece surfaces; suspect three or more boards. The majority of 18thcentury furniture is comprised of superb timbers, this is due to large supplies which allowed makers to be selective.
Makers avoided knots or timber with worm damage. Restorers and or fakers are more likely to use inferior woods, due to limited supplies and the pressure to match existing woods.
Always be on the lookout for modern joints, those never used in antique furniture. Traditional joints include dovetails, mortise-and –tenons, lap joints and miters, if traditional joining occurs in these joints, it can’t be seen, therefore the only way to check is to x-ray the joints and at times you may also see hidden nails and or screws.
Study 18-19th century hand tools and the surfaces they made. When you understand surfaces, feel across the grain for the ridges between the planed furrows. Use a raking light, a single source shining obliquely on the woods surface, to look for the revealing highlights and shadows of a planed surface. Look at every surface at an oblique angle. Tools driven across wood by hand, a material itself by nature is uneven in texture, making perfectly flat surfaces almost impossible. Tool marks found on secondary timbers would definitely mark a piece before the 19th century. Mechanical planers were introduced after 1810 and leave tiny repetitive ridges perpendicular to the grain of the wood. You will find perpendicular saw marks on 18th century backboards, undressed surfaces, and the undersides of drawers and or the insides of cases. These marks were created by pit-saws. Many times the maker did not plane off the pitsaw marks, thus economizing time and effort. The favorite mark of a maker was a scored, scribed, or scratched line because such a line is clear and narrow, truly precise. These lines have still stayed the test of time; we see them today enabling us to trace the steps of the craftsman.
Hidden drilling can be examined for the roundness of the drilled hole, up until the mid-19th century spoon bits were for drilling, resulting in less than round holes also with a gimlet point in the bottom of the cavity. X-rays can reveal the type of cavity. The turners chisel left marks on chair legs to balustrades, these were the result turning in green wood and at very slow speeds. In the period the turner would not sand the marks. Today and since the mid-19th century, lathes turn at high speeds and it has become a ritual to make the turning as smooth as possible. It id the same for wood carving chisels, carving in the green, usually only measuring the next repetition by eye, and when the green wood dried handmade irregularities were only magnified. Since the mid19th century with the advent of carving machinery, and a different mindset of a contempory craftsman for perfection and macnine like repetition, has been made a mantre. Even woodturners did not use calipers, compare turnings and understand the human element.
Veneer has bad rap it doesn’t deserve. Collectors have condemned veneer as a fakers cover-up, overlooking the fact that fakers cover-up, overlooking the fact that fakers abuse all decorative techniques, misusing carving much more. In Europe veneer was used as an economy. Veneering was a skill-demanding, time consuming technique. Borders and highlights adding contrasts and geometric patterns inlet into the core wood is called “inlay”. Various metal and gems are some of the inlay of Europe. To recognize veneer from solid wood, look for the edge of the veneer on the side of the surface in question. Sometimes an amalgam of inlays from several geographic areas gives away a reproduction.
Veneer problem (lost, loose, and bubbled up) are also adhesive problems. Until the middle of the 20th century glues were made from the hides and bones of animals and fish and all had to be applied hot. White glue a 20th century development has very little flexibility compared to its predecessor. When dried hide glue is brown and white glue is clear.
Nail, screws , hinges, handles and locks, whether original and in place or, as is often the case with old furniture, replaced or missing, provide solid facts of history. By their appearance or by the shadows and marks they leave behind, these can date work, reveal repairs, reworking and reused elements and can convict a fake. Nails until 1800 were made by hand by a nail rod of iron, producing nail heads with either no head, rose head or an irregular mushroom head. After 1800 machines cut nail out of flat iron stock. In the 1880’s cut nails were replaced by wire nails. Hence, we have shaft shapes of square, rectangular and round. The top of the shank is usually visible, as when the wood shrinks, the nail protrudes proud of the surface. Beware of rusty nails with rusty shanks with non-rusty wood. Reused and new nails generally do not have time to darken the surrounding wood. Inspect nail holes wherever you expect to find nails
The dating of screws is mostly pre185/post 1850. Post have a pointed gimlet ends so they would direct easily into the wood. Pre 1850 are all handmade, they had a flat end, and the filed screw slot is generally off center. The threads on these screws generally have flat edges, the threads barely taper at all and are very irregular. New screws in an antique require new, enlarged and lengthened holes. In redoing furniture, sometimes hinges were replaced due to screws not fitting in them.
Cotter pins fastened wooden lids and early brass handles. Two interlocked cotter pins make a strong, serviceable hinge, the primary hinge of the 17th century. They left irregular holes with 2 oppositely radiating indentations into the woods surface. They were used on crude furniture throughout the 18th century. As far as hinges are concerned, look for packing-out around replacement but hinges. Become familiar with the styles of handles and key escutcheons, because they clue you in on the spacing of the holes they required and left behind. Wooden knobs were standard on drawers and doors. Of 17th century furniture, but continued into the next century on Shaker furniture. The bail and loop of Queen Anne style required 2 cotter pins. During the first half of the 18th century, the back plates were hammered with punch work for an engraved appearance. On smaller pulls you will see bruising or indentations in the drawer front where the bail or drop would land; larger plates would catch the bail and or drop. Also look for ghosting or the outline of the hardware when the surrounding wood of the drawer front fades due to lite. Remember, that the easiest way and surest ways to discover a married piece is to find that the history of the brasses on one case is different from that on the other. Random holes may indicate a reused piece of wood, extra holes may have been drilled for felonious distraction. Sometimes replacing brasses required only drilling 1 new hole, the other one would be used again.
Earlier nuts and bolts are irregular. Early blots are usually square at the top of the shank, where modern ones are round. Old nuts tend to be round and are made to fit the one bolt only. Early rococo plates have hand filed edges and when turned over one can see evidence of sand casting, seeing a grainy appearance and texture. 19th century knob –handles were of brass, glass or wood. These knobs screwed onto a threaded shaft and inside the drawer a nut screwed on the other end. The 19th century was a revival of all previous shapes and styles of hardware, and most not appearing in the best proportions.
The reason for a chest or drawer prior to 1850 was to provide safe storage for valuables, drawers were meant to be locked. Although expensive, locks were essential. Locks were screwed or nailed into mortises, new replacement locks rarely fit these mortises therefore change is well apparent. All period drawers had escutcheons surrounding the keyhole to protect the wood and decorate the façade. In the beginning they did not generally match the pulls, but with the advent of the Queen Anne style all hardware began to be made en suite.
In the 19th century casters were the rage, they were repeatedly added to older period furniture. Some in this time even cut half a ball and claw foot and installed a caster, this type of mayhem devalued many objects. Casters date on British furniture 1745 and on American 1785. Look for filled holes under the feet of cases, tables, or chairs to see evidence that if casters were present.
Old glass is good evidence of age and authenticity. Whether blown or cast old glass is slightly tinted and contains many imperfections. Perfectly smooth glass was not perfected until the mid-19th century. Never gauge the age of the glass, by the conditioning of the silvering in a mirror. Period glass is held in by glazers putty or plaster of Paris. Old glass is extremely brittle, even if the glass is new, the furniture may still be old.
The dovetailing joint locks the end of one board to the end of another by fitting a row of fan-shaped on the one into a row of identical notches on the other. Each row of dovetails is indivually made and mated, with the cabinetmaker using his finished dovetailed tenons as a model for cutting the matching notches. Original dovetail cutting resulted in overcutting, when checking for original matching or added drawers examine and compare the style, length and width of overcut kerf. Before examining the back and underside of a case, remove the drawers. Take each drawer and turn it over, this reveals a lot, particularly with regards to unfinished surfaces. Many fakers of the past paid little attention to the undersides, this is a good indicator to judge other unfinished secondary surfaces for texture and color. Be very sascious of finished or refinished undersides, backs and or interiors, this screams possible case bastardization and or at best a reworked area using fraudulently reused boards. While under there, look for unnatural alterations, especially feet. Although turned feet are dowelled in to the bottom, many more feet are glued to the underside. Because the cabinetmaker shaped foot brackets after he put them and their blocking in place, both the bracket and its support block should bear the same saw cuts and rasp marks. A variation in wood color betrays support blocks of various ages. Stained blocks are replacements. Looking at wood color and at rasp marks, even a rookie spots replaced supports and new feet. New feet substantially reduce the value of a piece.
Many time a upper and lower case of a double case, lead a second, separate life. The upper and lower case of many high chests have been separated, as have the two cases of some chest-on chests. Almost every time one of these hits the street, it does in cognito; lower cases of chests-on-chests and upper cases pose as chest of drawers; lower cases of high chests pretend to be dressing tables. Dressing tables tend to be narrower, measuring about 32-36” wide. A dressing table that is 41” wide is a reborn high chest base. When determining if a case is leading a double life, scrutiny of the façade is paramount. The façade of the upper case of a high chest usually looks like what it really is even when the case is posing as a low chest of drawers. Another indicator is the top. Scrutinize the top surface. To pass as a dressing table, the lower case of a high chest needs to be fitted with a top. Most new tops are not up to the job. Typically period tops were finished as grandly as the facades. If the drawer front s were veneered the top should be of a similar style, design and or material. The flat-top of the upper case of a high chest is even more revealing. it closely resembles the bottoms of dovetailed cases. The top of a high chest or a chest-on chest is well above eye level, so the top board is not of primary wood and was left unfinished(even platinizing its entire existence). Because the top was not meant to show, the dovetails binding it to the sides of the upper case are exposed The cornice molding surrounding the top are usually flush with the surface of the top. In contrast, the tops of chests of drawers were table-height or a bit higher and were meant to be seen and used as table surfaces. Such tops are of finished primary wood. The top usually overhangs the case sides and front, and there may be moldings beneath the overhang, but very rarely are moldings merely attached along the edge without concern for the appearance from above. When the top of a chest is of secondary wood and has exposed dovetails, be very skeptical. Once you become skeptical, discovering the true nature of a high-chest top in disguise can be amazingly easily. Sometimes a redone case even has a long hidden drawer in the cornice of the molding. The undersides of reborn upper cases reveal little. After all, during the years when the uppercase was on its lower case, its bottom board was not exposed to air and did not darken. In a chest of drawers that resembles a high-chest upper case, look to the top for a reliable story.
Tops on Boston area chests join the case sides with a sliding single dovetail visible from the back. A Rhode Island chest, however, really has 2 tops; a frame-completing top often of 2 boards, joined to the sides by locking rows of dovetails and a topmost surface secured to the case by moldings , glue blocks and often butterfly keys. When investigating the backs of cases, look for telltale modern saw marks on the lower edges of a high chest or dressing table backboard. That small and barely visible surface is most likely the one spot the faker neglected.
The insides of cases, which are also unfinished surfaces, also bear informative marks of the craftsman at work and revealing marks of wear. Feel the inside surfaces. Beware the top, sides, or back whose inner surfaces are smooth and finished. Within cases with more than one drawer on a tier, the cabinetmaker inserted vertical partitions, and the scored lines with which he located their mortises are visible on the inside of the back. Wherever drawers make contact with the case, the investigator looks for wear. Some drawers run on central supports; most stand on their edges, sliding on strips that are nailed to the case sides.
Always check on the inside of cases for wear. Replaced drawer supports are a minor loss but may indicate even greater alterations. At times these have been turned upside down in order to have a clean bearing surface. Check all drawers in a case for uniformity in wood, color and construction for local damage. A faker’s favorite for suggesting age was random ink stains. Ink stains are logical in a desk but out of place in, for example, a dressing table.
On a desk, the feet and lid are likely to be a problem. Fold down desk lids were usually made of one board edged with cleats whose grain runs in the opposite direction from that of the board itself. Desk lids most often break just beyond the hinges. Two –board lids are probably repairs; the new piece, the one at the hinge. To discern replaced lids, check the hinges. At a replaced hinge, the pieced repairs on both sides should show a shared history. But desks can have major problems, an enhanced or entirely replaced interior, or the marriage of a bookcase to a desk, so check for consistency in wood, color, and craftsmanship. A desk made to have a bookcase has a top board of unfinished wood, exposed dovetails at each end, and nail-hole evidence of a midmolding around the front and side edges. The wood however should always be the same on bookcase and desk, small drawers should be similarly constructed, and the contour of the moldings should match.
It is not sufficient to justify inconsistencies by merely dubbing them curious. Too many people, including just about everyone selling a married piece, justify oddities with ease. The cautious collector views the curious, skeptically and demands proof of innocence. Where there is one inconsistency, look for more. Here you quickly find more to call curious.
The dovetailing on 19th century pieces is generally more delicate and even than that on most 18th century work. Hidden surfaces are better finished. Drawer bottoms are often secured with a series of small blocks. The nails are cut nails and more of them are used. Dating most federal, neoclassical, and machine-era cases to the 19th century is easy. Just don’t ask when in the 19th century. Also dowelled joints belong to the late19th and early 20th century as do wire nails and gimlet pointed screws.
With regards to turners chairs, expect stretchers to be parallel to the floor and regarded stretchers that are not parallel as indicative of uneven wear to front and back feet. Look for a relationship between the turnings on the front and rear posts. In the period when a turner turned unseasoned wood, cuts could be made easily and as deep as he desired with one motion s opposed to turning seasoned wood at a much higher speed which was ridged and would fight back, resulting not in gentle tool-graining as with green wood but creating tears, breakouts and chips. Many turners style chairs with rush or caned seats have at a later date been upholstered over the rail. To check the age of a rushed or caned chair, peek beneath the rush or Cain directly on to the rail. It should be unfinished, with a somewhat blade shape, and out of a strong cheap wood such as ash. Expect the rail to become slightly fluted due to the rush or caning pulling into the unseasoned rail when new.
With Chippendale or Queen Anne chairs, stand back from cabriole furniture and compare the legs. Because of templates, all the splats on the several chairs in a set should match. If one does not, either the splat has been replaced or the set is made up. Do not let your eye infer symmetry or exact replication where the craftsman did not impose it. Where templates would impose symmetry and exact replication on a cabriole leg and its counterpart, or on the several splats of the same set, demand mirror images and carbon copies. Where templates tended to allow and to perpetuate asymmetry on the opposite sides of one splat, expect and accept it.
Another oddity in chairs is that the rear seat rail is set higher than the side, typically they are at the same level. Many times in Chippendale and Queen Anne chairs, rail tenons are single pegged into the posts. Double pinning appears to be overbuilding. Pinning a splat to the crest rail or shoe is unnecessary, and will not allow movement of the splat. Stay clear of bird carving of the 1920s-30s, that is recarving of the hand hold of a chair into a birds head or carving of a foot into bird talons.
Upholstered chairs and sofas should be examined in a state of undress, either stripped to the frame is no original upholstery survives or stripped of what remains of the original fabric. Strip away all reupholstery. Examine the entire frame, excepting only the parts covered by original upholstery. The old frame tells a story, old wood looks old with many nail holes and new wood looks new. Added wood, many upholsters add reinforcements or rails and stiles to help in reupholstering, it’s not a deficit; replaced or missing elements are. Filled nail holes and glued and cloth-wrapped rails are common. Inappropriate corner blocks can also help corner a fake; 18th century craftsman in certain cities used certain shapes for their blocks, so the style of the block should be with the style of the chair.
Tops are what tables are all about, the very reason the bases exist. Tops get the wear and the workout. They often break, warp, or split and are removed. Baseless tops and topless bases have a way of getting together. There are new tops on old bases, new bases on old tops, marriages of old tops and old bases, and complex mix and matches. Look for splice-lines on table legs. One piece legs are standard; splices to extend table legs are never original. A common enhancement, however, is the exchanging of plain legs for more stylish ones, with the splice usually being made at the indent in the turning, where the joint is hard to see. Try holding the table top and forcing a leg to turn with your hand, if it’s a fake with a dowel, sometimes the joint will open up slightly to reveal the evidence. Legs or stiles that are made of 2 boards spliced together instead of being formed of a single square post are not original. But vertical splicing is original to some Spanish feet, and to a very select few Queen Anne cabrioles.
Wooden pins, screws, or glue blocks hold the tabletop to the frame. Compare the shadows under the top to those on the inside of the frame. To check pin or screw holes, you have to remake the top. Demand corresponding fastening holes in the top and the frame. If the underside of the top has been completely finished or painted, condemn it. On the positive side, shadows or holes may tell of a top that shrank and how it was refastened, with no fakery involved. In sophisticated furniture, the expert expects the top of the table or of the case to be of the same wood as the base or case below. Replacers of tops, though they ideally aimed at using the same wood, frequently settled for substitutes in haste. Another piece with great fakers appeal is the butterfly table; it was easily converted from a tavern table. When examining, tables, always put them upside-down on their tops to get the facts. If it had a drawer check for color changes in the drawer chamber and wear on the runners. Look for wear on the protruding parts of the feet. And look at areas that are protected when the table is in its normal position, and that consequently should show no wear. On gate or swing-leg tables, the several feet wear differently. Feet on swing legs rub against the floor and wear much more than those that are stationary. Warping too may cause extra wear to one foot. Always check the underside of tables for replaced or packed out hinges. The color and texture of the underside of leaves and top are solid clues to a common history. Check the leaves for wear caused by the supports rubbing them as they swing. Feel the wear. Actually work the supports.
The greatest problems are the dovetail joints of the legs. They are usually hidden by a reinforcing metal triangle. The fact that triangles were used, often in original construction, points to the frailty of the base of the pillar. Even when the metal looks undisturbed, the pillar may have cracked. There may be some American tables or stands that are exceptions, but almost every example with a Mahogany plate is British. Beware of primitive stands. Very popular in the early 20thcentury, they were made in large numbers, and still are. Turned feet on some stands look like those on a spinning wheel. Defrauders dismembered so many spinning wheels to create stands from the old turnings that they created a fad for such stands.
Old candle stands stand 26 to 29 inches tall, just the right height for someone sitting in an antique easy chair. The tops of 18th and 19th century tables are almost always larger than their bases, and though many tops overhang the skirt only a bit, they are at least no smaller. In selling, antique dealers propagate “odd becomes rare”. Think of how the furniture was used, and demand that its several parts make sense. Try the impossible, disregard even splined provenances. An impressive provenance can grow without a critical inspection having been made. With regards to Federal-style furniture, compare the inlay or carving to that of period pieces. Always check the consistency of this ornamentation by comparing the most advanced aspect of the design to other similarly decorated details.
In early 19th century designs, the drawer sides, back and bottom are many times mahogany, not a cheap secondary wood. Feet are now dowelled into legs. And all of the screws are machine made and have gimlet points. While some of the screws in any period table may be replaced, a few, or at least one old one should remain. Luckily the dull color and hand filled threads of old screws do not look, under a magnifying lens, like the shiny, machine-threaded ones from your local hardware store.
While investigating style and construction, be alert to how the furniture was finished off. There were several ways of doing the job. In the wood figure was part of the embellishment, the furniture required a clear finish. Few pieces were simply waxed. Most stylish furniture was varnished with one of many formulas created to impart a relatively clear high gloss.
Before receiving the clear glossy coat, the wood was often stained to give it an appearance of better wood or to make it more uniform in color. In refinishing, such furniture loses stain as well as gloss usually regaining only gloss.
Painted furniture was much more common than surviving examples suggest. Much original paint has been over painted, which sometimes proves to be the salvation of the original, much has been stripped, and that which has survived may be very delicate or barely visible. Painted furniture requires two investigations; authenticate the furniture and authenticate the finish. For the latter, you may need to become an expert on paint or painted furniture, or you may want to consult one. If you want an expert’s opinion get it directly from the expert. We as detectives must familiarize ourselves with ultraviolet light for helping find something suspicious. Newer added pigments or some varnishes fluoresce differently than older ones; the added work normally shows up black.
Don’t consider buying an antique just because of an advertisement of a blurb about it. Detectives begin paint investigations in small hidden areas. They work slowly to uncover a painted past, scraping with a blade and sometimes following up with sandpaper or using solvents or even gentle hammer taps. Suspect reused wood whenever a board has a face color that is missing on the edge. Use the sense of touch to detect differences in painted surfaces and replaced parts. To augment the senses, an investigator needs an understanding of, not necessarily expertise in finishes. Touching and seeing the alligatored, crazed, finish on a chair, for example, reveals that some areas are in worst shape than others. Sunlight causes alligatoring. Do not expect finish deterioration to be evenly distributed. If caused naturally, it isn’t even. No one should have trouble distinguishing between finish deterioration and refinishing. Exposure to light, water or heat causes logical variations in texture, whereas surfaces finished at different times feel entirely different from one surface to another. Alligatoring is a crazing common with the 19th century. Important information can also come from smell. Smell, an odor of fresh varnish reaches your nose, revealing that the top had just been refinished. For example, refinishing a top board, can remove shadows left in an old finish of a once existing splashboard. With stain and varnish covering the tracks of the splashboard, the sideboard was being auctioned as if it had never been more than a refinishing.
In clear finishes, the fashion today is for muted surfaces that look somewhat worn, not for a glasslike piano-type finish. Chances are that any muted, somewhat worn surface you see is new, younger than a slick high sheen that was probably applied a couple of generations ago.
Two problems: Was the finish removed although, including the stain under the varnish, the chemical strip-it approach? 2. Was the wood beneath the finish scraped or sanded, mechanically stripped, before the surface was refinished? The look of a new wood surface helps answer both questions; a hands-on approach helps detect mechanical stripping. Knowing which woods and finishes were popular and when also helps.
The best way to find evidence of the original finish on a case is to open a drawer and look around the front corner of the drawer side or, with the drawer removed, to look just inside the front corner of the drawer opening. Some stain, finish, or paint has usually made it onto such secondary surfaces. The best place to look on an upended table is beneath the top or inside the skirt next to a leg. ON a chair, also turned over, original finish will hide beneath the skirt beside a leg or in a spot covered by upholstery. On an attractively decorated rocker, the underside of the wooden seat retains revealing smudges of paint and varnish. Furniture that you are sure is old may have a finish that clearly is not and yet may show no evidence of an earlier finish.
Always look for dirt on top of and incorporated into most finishes. In hidden corners, in crevices, in up-and-under hideaways, the gummy residues of years of waxing and polishing and just plain dust and dirt accumulate. Dirty build-up, a friend to the detective, is a great challenge to the defrauder. Black paint and stain may simulate dirt, but you will soon with experience not be fooled. You will become adept at searching for genuine dirt and at recognizing it when they see it.
Tips For The Collector
The dealer playing the confidence game is easy to spot. He seeks to establish your confidence in him, eagerly pointing out minor flaws but failing to mention the major ones. “The brasses he says are replaced”. So are all four feet, you notice, not distracted by his red herring? Another clearly recognizable character is the pusher. His hard sell sounds like banter: “It has been in the same family for generations”, “I tried for years to get this piece and had to pay practically what I am asking for it”, “A prominent collector has his eye on this and is going to be so upset to learn it’s been sold” and “I hate to sell it. You can’t find any of them anymore” Amid such talk, savvy collectors should slam shut their ears and open their eyes wide!
ON way to squelch pedigrees, and cut down on the banter is to tell the dealer, “I keep a file on everything I buy. When and if I buy this, I want all that info on the bill of sale. Will you write down the history, including your estimate of when the piece was made, while I continue looking it over?
Always have the dealer write on the receipt all the information he has about that antique. If all the information is not on the receipt, you will never consider getting it. Keep a file on your collection. The receipt now becomes part of the objects history. Every object should have a separate folder. An antique always looks better when its home. Always get return privileges in writing from the dealer. Many reliable dealers will take back a purchased item at the price of the original transaction. After a dealer gets to know you, he is likely to suggest you take home the furniture right of the bat. Don’t take it home yet examine in his shop.
Until you know your stuff, the auction beat, though it appears attractive, can be treacherous territory. What seem most attractive are the prices; one can expect to pay less at the auction than in a shop, although that is not always the case. Many auction pitfalls are common knowledge: all sales are finial, handlers cannily present the best aspects of an object while hiding its flaws; the lights, or lack of them, make even dreadful objects look well. And not all bids at the auction come from people; on auctioneer claims to have no reserves, seems regularly to accept bids from the large clock in the back of the Elks hall.
In an entirely different sense, the clock is the greatest danger of auctions. Prospective bidders have little time to examine the items that appeal to them; those in the know go to auction previews early and stay late. Preview the lots as early as possible. At auction previews, take your time. In order to be able to inspect each object thoroughly, inspect fewer of them. Inspect only those lots that truly appeal to you and whose estimated prices (which may be cited in the catalogue or ascertained from the auctioneer) are within your budget and your own estimate of their value.
The estimated prices, educated guesses that can and very often do wander wide of the mark, are one of only two things the catalogue is good for. None of those catalogue terms, “antique”, “rare”, “fine”, style-of”, “attributed to”, mean anything, although one can probably believe reproduction. Catalogues descriptions don’t enter into the savvy collector’s consideration of any auction lot. Why not? Auction catalogues themselves, in their least perused section, state the reason. The “Conditions of Sale”(printed to protect the house not the public) state: Neither we nor the consignor make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, as to the correctness of the description, genuineness, authenticity, or condition of eh said property. No statement in the catalogue or at the sale shall be deemed such a warranty or representation or an assumption of liability with respect thereto.
In other words: Take no stock in anything said either in the catalogue or by the auctioneer. Few auction houses have the same level of expertise and in-house experience as shops that handle antiques of similar quality. Nor need they. They do not have the same investment in what they are selling. Yet auction catalogues usually suggest some level of knowledge, claiming that “reasonable care” was taken in the cataloguing. The phrase “reasonable care” means nothing, and doesn’t even insure that the auction house is telling all it knows about the lots.
Be especially suspicious of objects or collections that are sold shortly after being included in books or museum exhibitions. The selection of an object for a book or exhibit may not have been based on an unbiased assessment of that object but may have been merely hype for the auction. Publication and exhibition are no guarantees of authenticity, and houses purposely make short periods between your receipt of an auction catalogue and the sale leaves you little time to adequately check cited publications, exhibits and histories. You can’t always be in the know, but you can always be suspicious.
But the savvy collector is aware that sometimes an antique merely visits a museum on loan because it’s on its way to the auction block, even though most museum professionals successfully sidestep the hype-a-privately-owned-antique trap. You not need to pay a premium for the imprint of an institution; you do not need it to assure that the antique is both genuine and worthy.
An antique on the market may have once belonged to a museum. Ex-museum objects (euphemistically called “deaccessions”) are appearing ever more frequently on the auction block, and usually but not always, the catalogue proudly proclaims the museum connection. The savvy collector asks why the lot is no longer in the museum. Some reasons for museum DE accessioning (e.g., the object is one of many of its type in the collection, or it does not fall within he area of the museums interests) should not discourage interest on the part of the buyer. If the table is not the best Chippendale two pedestal dining table in a museum, it may still be the best one available to the collector. If a hometown museum is not interested in an out-of-state chair, the collector may well be.
But museums also sell objects their curators have discovered to be fakes,, frauds or reproductions. And museums sell objects that have been so overly restored that they cannot really be considered antique. While inspecting a museum deaccessions, ask yourself, why it is being sold.
Be prepared for an exhilarating discovery, you have become such a savvy detective that you can spot the fake, the fraud, the reproduction, or the reworked antique that once fooled a curator.