The charm that rests in a rare old piece of mahogany, and the
pitfalls that lie everywhere in the path of the seeker for real antiques,
these are my text. For to arrive at the truth of it all, we must study
both the obverse and reverse sides; each has plain markings.
I wish I could convey to my readers some hint of the enthusiasm
which the lover of old furniture feels, but I am coming to believe that in
such things the skeptic must ever remain a skeptic and the Philistine a
Philistine. But there are many, I know, who are born with the
appreciation of such things and who need but a little direction to make them
members of the cult.
In general, it seems to me, there are two parts to this question of
the truth about antique furniture. Is the antiquity of a piece of
furniture genuine? If so, what is the old thing good for, anyway! The first
question resolves itself into a study of frauds and swindles; and of
these, alas! the name is legion.
Probably not more than one piece in ten offered in the open market
is at once genuine and in sufficiently good condition to be worth
having. I make this somewhat challenging statement on the authority of
professiontal decorators, collectors of antiques, and even of dealers
themselves. For there are many honest dealers; I want that to be clearly
Now, there are a score or more of antique shops along one single
street Fourth Avenue, New York City-and each shop is packed from floor to
ceiling, so it is remarkably easy to pick out something not quite real
and pay a good round sum for it.
Take a single type of antique as an example, the Chippendale chair.
I know a man who has spent eight years in the search for genuine
Chippendales, and has found just six. And he hasn't balked at price, either.
Yet every little shop has Chippendale chairs for sale. The conclusion,
it would seem, is perfectly obvious. For to imagine that Thomas
Chippendale and his workmen could possibly have produced one tenth of all the
chairs attributed to them is absurd on the face of it.
"And so," you will exclaim, if you are one who jumps to hasty
conclusions, "all this so-called antique furniture is mostly fake. Why,
Fourth Avenue ought to be raided!"
Softly, softly, my friend.There may be more in this question than
appears on the surface.
I have talked with a good many dealers and experienced collectors,
collectors who go down into Fourth Avenue unafraid and unashamed, and
bring up thence real treasures of bygone days and I have discovered that
this question of fraud is not to be dismissed with a hasty
The opportunities for picking up choice pieces of genuine antiquity
are becoming more and more rare. Many are locked up forever in museums
and other public collections; others are in private collections and
homes. Therefore the number now available and on the market is strictly
limited, and real antiques are increasing in value every year. But the
demand is also increasing; hence the great and evidently irresistible
temptation to defraud.
This matter of faking seems to me to be of supreme importance.
Faking is wide-spread and remarkably successful, and it is essential
that the prospective buyer of antiques should be posted on the subject
and know how to avoid being swindled. Reproductions, either of a style or
from an actual model, are of three sorts: replicas, frankly modern
copies, and fakes. The first two are almost always made with no attempt to
deceive; let us consider the frauds.
The market is full of fakes, and yet if you shun the market you
stand small chance of securing what you want. It would certainly be unfair
to condemn antique dealers as a class, and if certain precautions are
taken nearly any of those with established shops may be approached with
a fair degree of confidence. There are many dealers and even
professional auctioneers who are not only honest but exceedingly well informed.
Yet the fact remains that within the past generation at least two men
have made fortunes in this country by manufacturing "antiques," and many
others haveimade a livelihood.There are little places in New York, for
instance, where skilful workmen keep busy piecing together "antiques,"
treating them with stains and acids, gluing, scraping, rubbing,
denting, simulating the wear and tear of time, and these pieces find
purchasers. Somebody sells them, and somebody there always is to buy.
And yet antiques cannot be purchased with greater confidence in any
other city of the world. London, Florence, Rome, and Paris are flooded
with fakes. They are more skilful and less cautious over there, and big
collections have been sold off in some subsidized Italian nobleman's
house, not one piece of which was genuine. Here either our shopkeepers
are more honest or our laws more searching.
Fake antiques may be roughly divided into three varieties: the piece
made up of bits of old antique carving, panels, etc. ; the plain,
genuine antique which has been made to command a higher price by means of
added carvings, inlay,etc.; the piece that is faked troughout usually a
The first sort is perhaps the most successful in Europe, where the
cleverest fakes are made from old wood. Old oaken beams from demolished
windmills, for example, have been converted into the rarest Dutch and
Jacobean "antique" furniture. This method of deceit has also been
employed successfully in this country. An old chest may be too dilapidated to
sell, but its finely carved panels may be pieced together to form the
cover to another old, chest which was originally plain. Or an entirely
new piece of furniture may be made up of remnants of old church pews,
and old bedsteads have been known to make fine columns for sideboards,
elaborate chinaclosets, etc. True, in many cases faulty workman ship may
be discovered a newly made peg here, recently dried glue there, but
often the deception is quite complete to the uninitiated.
The second sort is often spoken of as "glorified." It is commonest
in French pieces, where new carvings, veneers, and inlays have been
added to some genuine but plain piece to enhance its value. Here, also,
gluing can sometimes be detected, but not often. It is a good rule to
examine veneer and carving as well as the plain surfaces for signs of
antiquity.One may be old and the other new.
A great many of the early Colonial and English pieces have also been
elaborated upon in this way. Plain, flat-top high-boys have had hoods
added. Sometimes the top drawers of both top and bottom sections have
been carved in sunbursts, the spandrel has been added, and acorn and leaf
carvings applied to the spandrels. Friezes have been newly carved in
fret patterns on a plain "chest upon chest of draw ers."Splats of plain
chairs .have been elaborated, making them very ornate. The carving on
the splats, however, makes them thinner than those on old carved chairs,
and the marks of recent carving can sometimes be detected.These are the
elaborated antique pieces which are most difficult to detect,
especially if the entire article has been refinished; other wise, on very close
examination (it is sometimes necessary to use a magnifying -glass), one
can see that the wood looks coarser and the finish is different where
this added work has been done.
A very close examination, moreover, will often show various kinds of
wood used. In the old parts which have been employed, the mahogany will
probably be the dark, cross-grained wood of San Domingo, while the
newer parts will be made of Mexican mahogany, or at the best that coming
from Cuba. Both these woods are naturally of a much lighter color, and
the use of stain on them can be detected. One will usually find modern
screws and nails used; the old, being hand-made, were very much rougher
and more irregular.The dovetailing of drawers will be heavy and far
apart. Such pieces will need the closest examination, and it will often be
necessary to scrape the finish from, the wood, when the difference
between old and new will at once be apparent.