Authenticating Antiques and Collectibles – Part I: Terminology

[Author’s Note: This is the first in a series of blogs focusing on the authentication of antiques and collectibles. After exploring the general principles of authentication, subsequent blogs will discuss authentication issues specific to ceramics, furniture, glass, and other collecting categories.]

Authentication when applied to an antique or collectible is the process used to determine an object’s origin and history. It extends beyond identifying an object’s form. While a chair is a chair, this statement provides only limited information about the chair.

Authentication involves the stories inherent in the chair, among which are: how was the chair made, what materials were used to make it, when was it made, who made it, what is its form, shape, and decorative pattern and what is the historical derivation of these elements, how was it marketed, how was it used, why did it survive, who owned it and who owns it now, and how does it relate to similar objects in the past and present. Only an inquisitor’s imagination limits the number of how, who, what, when, where, and why questions.

Authentication requires a precise terminology, one which is clear, concise, and upon which everyone can agree. “It is old,” a commonly used trade expression, is meaningless. Old is a relevant term. A 50 year old object is not old to someone who is seventy. It is ancient to someone who is twenty-five.

Period is the correct term to apply to an object that was made during its initial period of manufacturer. Initial requires interpretation. Period has national connotations. Period American Chippendale furniture dates between 1760 and 1790. The English Chippendale design period ended in the 1760s. The design style was absent from France or Italy.

Period design styles continue long past their initial period of manufacture. Chippendale-style furniture is available in any of today’s large furniture stores. Pieces made after the end of the initial design period have different designations—reproduction, copycat, fantasy, or fake.

If the piece is mass produced, period is used to describe examples made when the object was first marketed and advertised. Manufacturers often retain dies, molds, stamps, and other forms once production ceases. These allow manufacturers to keep an item in stock after its initial sales period or to take advantage of a revival in popularity. Restrike, a print maker’s term to designate later copies made from engraving and other type of plates, is the correct term to apply to second, third, and subsequent production runs from these dies, molds, stamps, and other forms.

When applied to a personality, group, television show, or movie, period defines the time span when the individual or group achieved stardom or the initial release/run of the movie or television show. Period American Beetle memorabilia dates between 1964 and 1970. When individuals are involved, period ends when the person dies. Period Elvis ceased in August, 1977, rumors that he is still living in South America and alive in your hearts, a la Michelle Bachmann, to the contrary. Period Star Wars involves two distinct periods, the first set of three movies (1977-1983) and the second set of three movies (1999-2005).

While experts may disagree on what time span constitutes the initial period of manufacture or stardom/popularity, they do agree on using period to describe the products made during this time.. Applying the term correctly indicates a level of sophistication and understanding on the part of an auctioneer, collector, dealer, or others involved in the trade.

A reproduction is an exact copy of a period piece. If the period piece and the reproduction were placed side-by-side, it is impossible to tell the difference without close inspection. The date the two objects were made is the only thing differentiating them.

While ideally a reproduction is made using the same tools and techniques used during the initial period of construction, this is not always the case. Some liberties are acceptable as long as the viewing surface remains identical.

Reproductions are difficult to differentiate from period pieces. A reproduction Chippendale chair made in the 1840s, even as late as the 1880s, exhibits almost the same aging characteristics as a period piece. Authenticators rely on construction details rather than aging to date ceramics, furniture, glass, and other items.

A copycat is a stylistic copy. At a glance, it appears to be a period piece. When placed side by side with a period piece, differences are readily apparent. There can be minor to major variations in size, decorative details, and material used. When most individuals in the trade identify an item in the trade as a reproduction, they actually are referring to a copycat. As has been demonstrated, the two are not identical.

Manufacturers have copied other manufacturer’s successful products for centuries. While a design patent protects a specific design, a slight variation, again often unnoticeable except to a discerning eye, is sufficient to obtain a new design patent. Shape and pattern copycats are especially prevalent in the ceramic and glass industry.

A fantasy is a form, shape, or pattern that utilizes elements of an earlier period design style but never existed in its new form during the initial design period. A Chippendale-style coffee table or Hepplewhite end tables are good examples. A glass manufacturer might use a period mold but produce the new object in a color that was not utilized during the initial production period.

Fantasy items also are used to describe licensed objects bearing the images of individuals, groups, movies, and television shows after the individual has died, group disbanded, or movie and television show ended. Coca-Cola is notorious for relicensing images from its historical archives. Products bearing such images are fantasy items.

Collectors’ club and convention items are a gray area. Although technically classified as fantasy items, their association with a collectors’ club or convention give them an element of legitimacy. Most are well marked.

A fake is an item deliberately meant to deceive. The goal is to defraud the buyer by making him/her believe he/she is buying something they are not. Whether the manufacturer, wholesale, or seller is guilty of selling the object as something it is not is irrelevant. If the manufacturer and/or wholesaler know the object will be sold deceptively after purchase, they are as guilty of fraud as is the seller.

Fakes are one-of-a-kind. Knock-offs are mass-produced fakes. When knock-offs first appear, the public is alerted. When those aware of the knock-offs are no longer in the marketplace 50 years later, knock-offs assume a legitimacy they do not deserve.

Finally, old is not the only meaningless word in the trade. Genuine, original, rare, real, and unique also belong on the list. These words are vague and open to interpretation. They need to be band from the trade. Do not trust any seller that uses them.

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