Rinker's Opinion - Authenticating Furniture

Previous Ruby Lane Authenticating Antiques and Collectibles specific general collecting category blogs focused on authenticating ceramics and glass. This blog covers furniture. Subsequent blogs will deal with the authentication of metals, painting, and paper.

Authenticating furniture utilizing design is fraught with risk. Once a furniture design enters the furniture vocabulary, it continues indefinitely. Further, American furniture designs from settlement through the early 20th century were strongly influenced by English furniture designs. Even today, American furniture designs are strongly influenced by European furniture design or industrial designers born and often initially trained abroad.

Period American Chippendale, which combines elements of Asian, Gothic, and French Rococo design, dates from 1760 through 1790. In England, the design was nearing its end in 1760. The first edition of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director was published posthumously in 1754. Although Federal furniture (Hepplewhite, Neo-Classic, and Sheraton) replaced Chippendale in America as the furniture design of choice by the 1790s, Chippendale design pieces continued to be made in urban and larger countryside towns. Although small in number Chippendale reproductions and copycats were made throughout the 19th century. The Colonial Revival of the late 19th century and its 1920s and 1930s renaissance resulted in large quantities of mass-produced Chippendale-style reproductions and copycats. Today, all furniture stores from the highest to the lowest quality feature Chippendale-style furniture.

[Author’s Aside #1: Vocabulary is critical in discussing furniture. Design is used to describe the architectural elements associated with period furniture, the time when the design was first introduced into the furniture vocabulary. The glossary of an auction furniture catalogs usually divides furniture into three groups. When a date is included in the description, it indicates that the auction house believes the piece to be period. When the description does not include a date, it means that while some of the piece may be period, it has experience major restoration, refinishing, or has later replacements. When the word “style” is included in a description, it signifies that the piece is a reproduction, copycat, or fake. Hence, “style” triggers mental warnings to a buyer to closely examine the piece. “Style” is often misused by the unknowledgeable when they mean period.]

Construction techniques are the key to authenticating furniture. There are three steps to the learning construction techniques. The first is reading, re-reading, and continually re-reading the following references for their insights into the characteristics of aging, wear, and construction methodology:

Field, Rachael. Macdonald Guide to Buying Antique Furniture. London: copyright by Brooks Stephenson Publishing Ltd. 1986. Distributed in the United States by Wallace-Homestead Book Company. Out of print. Forget about the fact that this book deals with English furniture. The same rules apply to American furniture. Pay close attention to the sections on the characteristics of reproductions and copycats.

Kaye, Myrna. Fake, Fraud, or Genuine?: Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture. Boston: copyright by the author, published by Little, Brown and Company: 1987.

Although these books concentrate on 18th and early to mid-19th century, the techniques employed are the same used to authenticate furniture from later periods. I read these books every year or two, learning something new each time I do so.

The second is learning the tool marks made by hand and machine tools. Whenever the opportunity arises, I visit artisan workshops, historic sites, factories, and museums to study how furniture is made. The Furniture Heritage Center of the High Point (North Carolina) Museum is a must visit. While in High Point, take as many factory tours as possible. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg features a “must see” exhibit showing the construction of a linen press.

[Author’s Aside #2: Many contemporary craftsman who make reproduction furniture pride themselves on using the same tools as their historic counterparts. This will make separating these pieces from their period counterparts extremely difficult in 100 to 150 years.]

The third method is to handle and carefully observe hundreds of period, reproduction, copycat, and fake pieces. It is difficult to learn alone. Novices are encouraged to work with an experienced authenticator to acquire the skills.

Locating pieces to handle is not difficult. Auctions are a good source. Instead of examining the pieces the auction house has cataloged as period, examine those without a date or “style” in the catalog description. If you cannot determine why the auction house staff failed to designate the piece as period, ask. Antiques shows offer another opportunity to examine pieces. Private collectors often are willing to share their collections with individuals who exhibit a willingness to learn. Reserving this option until you have the ability to talk with collectors at their level is strongly recommended. Finally, large museums have study collections. These collections are open to serious scholars. Although there usually is no fee involved, I always make a generous donation to the museum after my visit.

Aging and wear are the second and third most important authenticating tools. Aging is how the materials used in the construction of the furniture change over time. Wood dries out and shrinks. Pieces that were round become ovoid in shape. Wood cracks, especially if joints are fixed in place with dovetails or nails. Wood warps as it ages. A “feel” vocabulary is essential to a furniture authenticator. Stroke the surface of a piece seeking areas that feel abnormal or unexpected to the touch. This is an excellent method to spot repairs, replacements, and refinishing.

[Author’s Aside #3: While aging is a continuing process, it is not an even process. The majority of aging on a piece of furniture takes place in the first 50 to 75 years. Hence, the aging characteristics of an 1870 Chippendale reproduction are almost identical to an 1780 period piece.]

Wear is the everyday damage done to piece through use. Wear can be and often is faked. Question every type of wear you encounter. Is there a logical explanation of why it occurred where it is located? Likewise, look for wear where you expect to find it. If it is absent, allow the mental alarm bells to sound.

Furniture authenticators need to develop a size vocabulary. The width and height of chairs vary from period to period. The same is true for the size of desks. A period Chippendale slant front desk is larger than a 1920s/1930s Colonial Revival Chippendale-style reproduction and copycat. When visiting museum collections, pay close attention to size.

A quality vocabulary is another must. Whether focusing on craftsman or mass-production furniture, quality is an essential ingredient in the dating and value of furniture. Quality sets the best apart from the better and good to borrow Albert Sack’s terminology from his Fine Points of Furniture: Early American (Crown Publishers, 1986). Furniture design is copied. Not all copies are of equal quality.

Aesthetics, an appreciation for line, form, and beauty, is another essential vocabulary. Quality furniture design is about pleasing proportions. There are height, width, and depth ratios, graduated draw configurations, and cyma and other curve proportions that please the eye more than others.

Of all object groups, furniture authentication relies more heavily on the “seventh” side—the inside—than the others. The inside of a three-dimensional piece provides more authenticating clues than the visible surface. The back and bottom are also important authentication sources.

Authenticating furniture relies heavily on consistency. Is everything about the piece consistent with what is expected for a piece made during its design period? Is the piece consistent within itself? Inconsistency within a piece occurs as a result of repairs, replacement, and fakery.

Because American furniture design copied English design, unscrupulous dealers often sell English and Irish pieces as American. Authenticating relies on the secondary woods, which differed in America from those in the United Kingdom and Ireland. When in doubt, insist that a wood sample from a support piece or interior be sent for analysis.

Authenticating is a time consuming process, especially when dealing with a piece of furniture. Whenever possible, authenticating should be done outside or in an indoor area where direct sunlight is available. The furniture should be disassembled and each component carefully inspected. The piece should be turned upside down and removed from a wall so the back surface can be seen.

Finally, if one mental alarm bell sounds when examining a piece of furniture, chances are great there are others to be discovered. Persist.

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