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Early American Furniture, A Practical Guide for Collectors

At last we have a new American furniture book to fill the gap left by yesteryear’s classics. John Obbard’s book does exactly what its subtitle promises: it provides practical information about American furniture, and at $12.95 it does it for a price any collector can afford.

There have been some genuinely useful broad-based reference works over the years, such as The Easy Expert in Collecting and Restoring American Antiques (1959) by Moreton Marsh (who later wrote for M.A.D., by the way); Early American Furniture (1970) by John Kirk; and How to Know American Antique Furniture (1973) by Robert Bishop. Early American Furniture: A Practical Guide for Collectors is a welcome addition to this list. (Early American furniture, as used here, goes up into the Empire/Classical era.)

John Obbard covers all aspects of American antique furniture, from the tools, hardware, and construction techniques used during different periods to describing the occasional fakes and frauds one might encounter, plus practical advice on refinishing and repair. This book goes beyond the usual fare — the describing of what’s Chippendale, what’s Hepplewhite, etc. — and bores right down to the practical information and furniture terms.

There’s so much covered in the book, one has to approach it like a box of chocolates. Take a piece from the top layer one day, and leave the lower layer for another. Study the motifs of various styles, then switch to hardware. Look at the drawings of various types of drawer bottoms and dovetail construction, and then switch to fasteners to see appropriate nails and screws of each period.

There are no photos in this book, but the drawings by Brenda Bechtel are clear and explicit, and they provide more detail in many cases than photos would. John Obbard did the drawings of joinery methods.

Most of the drawings and text are placed on facing pages so you can read the whys and hows of cabinetmaking and then match the text with the illustration. The chapter on “Identifying Period Workmanship,” for example, covers drawer front construction with drawings of through dovetails, lapped or half-blind dovetails, lipping, simulated cockbeading (with the beads on the drawer blades or dividers), and real cockbeading (with the beads created on the drawer fronts and the shorter pieces nailed to the sides). Obbard tells why through dovetailing was a bad idea that was replaced with the lapped or half-blind dovetails that exist to this day on better-made furniture.

Once a familiarity with cabinetmaking methods, joinery, construction details, and hardware is established, it’s a lot easier to distinguish genuine period pieces from reproductions and problem pieces. There’s a chapter on “Evaluating Quality,” followed by “Antiques as an Investment.” Those who can’t evaluate quality should never consider antique furniture as investments.

When we spoke with John Obbard about the book, we learned he has retired from Raytheon, where he was in the software lab and wrote test plans and software specifications. This required great accuracy but was pretty boring reading, as Obbard conceded. His wife’s name is Evelyn, but most call her Evie.

“Evie and I both had some things before we were married and came into the marriage with a little furniture. Then I inherited a bunch more,” Obbard said. “When we started collecting, I went to a Skinner auction and discovered there was a whole new world out there that I didn’t know anything about. I started taking books out of the library. Most of them dealt with beautiful collections of lovely furniture but not the sort of stuff you usually see outside of Christie’s or Sotheby’s or museums.

“Then I bought a paperback of Ormsbee’s book [Thomas H. Ormsbee’s Field Guide to Early American Furniture, first published in 1951], and I looked inside, and it was the thirteenth printing, and I thought, ‘Aha! There’s a demand for this book.’ The other thing that was interesting was that when I went to a couple of libraries to check out Ormsbee’s book, before I found a copy for myself, I found that all the copies had been swiped. That’s another indication that somebody likes him.

“Ormsbee covers the sort of stuff that you really see very frequently. My book uses the same basic format really, but I expanded on his ideas. I added a bunch of stuff on auctions and a chapter on quality, one on periods, another on care and conservation.”

John Obbard has been working on the book seriously for ten years. He discovered that writing a book isn’t as easy as many people think. “The initial draft was very poor. I don’t know how to describe it. I guess it was sort of cutesy. It’s the sort of mistake that amateur writers make all the time, sort of personal and cutesy. And I got absolutely nowhere with it. Finally, Yale University Press sent it off to a reader, and the reader, I think it was a young lady, absolutely demolished it. She did about a three-page write-up and said it was just terrible. That was really great because it told me what I was doing wrong. So I started all over and revised it pretty extensively.”

One chapter is devoted to “Dealers, Shows, and Auctions.” Of his own buying, Obbard commented, “We started collecting by buying from dealers. When I gained more experience we started buying at auctions, which is pretty much what we do now, although the interesting thing is that the few big purchases we’ve made, Evie’s desk and some dining room chairs, came from dealers. They just had something that looked absolutely perfect, and when your heart goes pitter-patter you know you have to have them.”

He has made his share of mistakes. “I got a cute little mirror at Skinner’s and then discovered it was off a dressing table. The minute I picked it up I looked at the sides, and there were the little pivot holes, a sure giveaway.” Early American Furniture: A Practical Guide for Collectors cautions readers to check the sides of small mirrors for evidence they were part of something else.

About restoring furniture, Obbard said, “You should think carefully about whether you could do it yourself or whether you should send it out. Things that are really good, I always send out if I want a really good job done. If the piece is nice I get somebody good to do it. If it’s a small thing, a little touchup or regluing, I can take care of that myself.”

Restoration can be a major factor for collectors. “When you look at a piece at auction you have to look ahead and ask what the repairs are going to cost. For example, you see sideboards all the time that are missing all sorts of inlay. Replacing inlay properly is unbelievably expensive. I’d be really leery of a sideboard unless it was in really pretty good condition. There are major costs to be considered.”

Obbard admits he rarely buys pieces with original finishes. “I haven’t ever bought a table or a chair with the original surface on it because I realized if I started fiddling with it, I’d just be throwing money out the window. I think average people who are collecting antiques are finding pieces to live with, not of such high quality that they’re afraid to use them. For example, a sofa that can’t be sat on because it has the original upholstery is ridiculous for the average collector.”

If you’re a veteran collector, the odds are you don’t need this book, but for almost everyone else this is a must-purchase reference. That’s especially so if you plan on making relatively expensive furniture purchases without the aid of experts.

      Maine Antique Digest, May 2000
P.O. Box 3009, Paducah, KY 42002-3009
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