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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Reproductions, Fakes, And Thefts

By Edwin Valentine Mitchell

( Orginally published 1950 )



There is something to be said for reproductions. Not those which are made with the intention of deceiving, but the straightforward copies made by master craftsmen which are honestly sold. The stock of antiques is limited and is decreasing steadily every year as a result of damage and destruction. At the same time, the demand has been increasing, until it has reached a point where there are not enough old pieces to go round. A reproduction lacks, of course, the aura and distinction which time alone can impart, nor does it have the historical associations which antiques often possess, but in the case of old furniture beauty is largely a matter of form and design and if you can get these, you have a good thing, regardless of when a piece was made.

Often the original is unique and the only hope one has of ever possessing anything like it is to have it copied. A person who lives with antiques may need a particular piece of furniture and unable to afford the genuine article will use a reproduction rather than go without it. There are still cabinetmakers with their own shops who are as expert as any of the old-time craftsmen and still do almost everything by hand, just as it used to be done. An expert cabinetmaker I knew specialized in Chippendale mirrors which were perfectly made and finished. The ornamental gilt leaves at the top and down the sides were whittled out of wood instead of being molded in plaster. A person needing such a mirror for decorative purposes, but unable to buy an original, was surely justified in taking the copy.

A notable family of master craftsmen are the Margolies family of Hartford. They have been cabinetmakers for at least four generations. The late Nathan Margolies, who founded the business in Hartford, served his apprenticeship in England. He made many reproductions of family pieces to order-tables, chairs, etc.and also a good deal of documentary furniture, including the Connecticut sunflower chest, the Savery lowboy and highboy, and the Washington Inaugural sofa and the flat-topped Washington desk with the fake drawers on one side in the City Hall, New York. A set of twelve Connecticut Senate chairs was made for the Aetna Life Insurance Company from the original, in the collection of Morgan B. Brainard. More recently Harold Margolies, who now carries on the business, supplied the furniture for the governor's mansion in Hartford. Many of the designs used by this family of cabinetmakers during the past fifty years were copied from the Pendleton Collection in the Rhode Island School for Design at Providence.

Mention of Washington is a reminder that recently in the home of a New England antique dealer I noticed a pair of Washington andirons. They were about the size of the frequently reproduced Hessian-soldier ones. The twin full-length figures of the first President show him wearing the decoration of the Order of the Cincinnati. Had they been genuine they would have been about a hundred and fifty years old, but they were reproductions. They had come from the estate of an antique dealer who had had a dozen pairs made.

A piece of furniture may be so extensively restored that it is actually more of a reproduction than an antique. The experienced collector never buys anything unless it is in its original state. If repairs are necessary, he has the work done himself. In this way he knows exactly to what extent a piece has been restored. There are, of course, collectors who consider it an act of vandalism to do any restoring at all. They want their antiques to remain in a virginal state, even if they are rickety, or perhaps lacking a part. They take the attitude that it is better to have an antique ruined by time than by the hand of the restorer. But most people buy antiques for practical use as well as for the aesthetic pleasure they derive from them, and are not averse to having their old furniture restored and strengthened.

It might be supposed that the many stories of antique faking would discourage collectors, but it seems to work the other way, people apparently reasoning that if the field of antiques is one the fakers find worth cultivating, it must be worth the attention of decent folk. Knowing there are shams on the market is a challenge that adds zest to the collecting game. It places a premium on knowledge. Some people, by experience, seem to acquire a special sense which enables them to scent a spurious production a long way off. Yet even the experts are sometimes fooled and good dealers defrauded.

Wallace Nutting, who manufactured a line of reproductions of colonial furniture in an old hat factory in Framingham, Massachusetts, once told me that he burned his name into all the furniture he made after he f ound that one of his pieces had been deceptively aged and passed off on a great art museum as a genuine antique. With the lapse of time, this Framingham furniture will itself become ancient and timeworn, and since it was well made from authentic models, it will perhaps be in special request. When that time comes, probably current copies will appear branded with Wallace Nutting's name.

One of his reproductions I used to age myself. When I had a book shop in an old brick house in Hartford, I bought from him two signboards, copied from an antique New England tavern sign, and had them both painted and lettered. As I thought a somewhat faded sign was more in keeping with the place than a freshly painted one and would give the impression of a long-established business, I let one sign weather out of sight on the roof, until the other, hanging over the doorway, had become almost illegible and had to be repainted. I then replaced it with the sign that had been aging on the housetop. In this way I always had a sign of the right vintage.

Many antiques are assembled from parts of other antiques. If the work is well done by one with a thorough technical knowledge, it is difficult to detect the fraud. Take old clocks, for example. The dials of one maker may be fitted to the movements of another and housed in a case of unidentified name and origin. Sometimes the names on the dials of old clocks are forgeries, and repairers of clocks in the old days thought nothing of signing those on which they had worked. Not much reliance can be placed on the label found inside the case as a clue to the maker of the clock, because the works were often sold separately, the purchaser having the case made by a local cabinetmaker.

It is the rarer types of clocks, like the "grandmother" clock and the "banjo" clock, which have attracted the attention of the fakers, because they bring more money. The grandmother is, of course, a diminutive version of the tall-case grandfather clock. A grandfather may be seven or eight feet tall, but a grandmother is never much more than five feet high, and may measure as little as three feet. Obviously the easiest way to make a fake grandmother clock is to cut down the case of a grandfather, though the clock chosen to be operated on has to be selected with care. A grandfather clock with a large hood and dial will appear all out of proportion if the height of the case is reduced. It will look like a gnome with a monstrous head. So the clever faker searches for a tall clock with a small dial, and either cuts down the old case or makes a new one, which he then ages.

It is not so easy to fake a banjo clock. It takes an expert to do it successfully. But many banjo clocks have been sold as genuinely old which in reality were nothing but skillful reconstructions. With knowledge of the scarcer types of these clocks, the gifted faker can make a rare example out of an ordinary banjo, complete with brass finial eagle and interesting glass-panel painting. Even dealers have sometimes been hoodwinked by these creations.

In some of the books on clockmaking the name of David Aird appears among the list of clockmakers, but he was a thief who merely pretended to be a clockmaker. In 1785 he advertised himself, in Middletown, Connecticut, as a clock- and watchmaker from London, and after gathering a lot of timepieces absconded with them. A year or so later he had the effrontery to return to Middletown and steal a couple of china-faced watches from a Middletown resident. Aird was a horse thief as well as a clock thief, and for the former offense was whipped and made to ride the wooden horse in Hartford.

Old pieces of furniture can be completely changed and sometimes two antiques can be made to appear where there was only one before. The bottom of a highboy may be made into a lowboy, the top into a desk. From the wreckage of several pieces it is frequently possible to salvage enough parts to assemble a new piece. Tables are often constructed from two or three broken ones. All the parts are genuinely old, but the resulting piece is not an antique in the sense understood by a collector. Furniture made up in this way is more difficult to detect than the wholly new fake.

A common fake of this kind is the antique sofa built around four old legs. If you examine the bottoms of the legs for fresh telltale saw marks, none will be visible be cause they came from an old piece of furniture. Perhaps the maker picked up a dilapidated table with square grooved legs which he could use. Old wood, of course, is employed for the frame.

New fabrics on sofas and chairs can be aged by immersion in faintly colored liquid, though some prefer to spray the tint on with an atomizer. It is also easy to fade textiles artificially. Old tapestries are often repaired and retouched, but this, like the restoration of pictures, is not faking.

Much artifice goes into making new furniture old, though the business is not so extensive at present as might be supposed. Yet the temptation to manufacture fakes is bound to increase as real antiques become harder to find and values advance. I have always doubted the story of the worm holes made with a charge of birdshot, but I do not doubt that they have been added with a tool. New pieces are roughly treated to wear off the edges. A particularly clumsy piece of faking is fairly usual in "aging" chairs. Natural use wears the front feet round as the chair is tipped and dragged forward. The fakers, unable to leave well enough alone, often take a rasp and round the edges of the back feet too, even the fronts of them. Such crude work does not fool the expert, but fakes are intended chiefly for the unwary and inexperienced buyer.

To give an old color to wood, it is sometimes burned with chemicals, or treated with permanganate of potash, or stained with walnut juice or other coloring matter.

One way used to impart an old finish is to apply a thin coat of benzine in which a little wax has been dissolved and then rub with steel wool. It is legitimate, of course, to use the aging process when a genuine old piece has been restored and it is necessary to bring the new portions into harmony with the old.

Tool marks are often an indication of the authenticity of an antique. When you see curved saw marks, for instance, on the bottom of a drawer, you know the piece is recent, because they come from a circular power saw; the older up-and-down saw left straight marks. Of course, the up-and-down saw continued in use long after the circular saw was invented, so, as usual, there is no conclusive proof of age, only of youth.

The hardware used may also betray a fake. Pointed screws, for example, were not made before the middle of the nineteenth century and their presence in a piece of furniture claimed to be older than that is a giveaway. Although machine-made screws began to be used about the time of the War of 1812, they were blunt-ended. Fakers are aware of this and in a cleverly made counterfeit will use the old pointless screws and hand-wrought nails. But by removing a screw it is sometimes possible to tell from the rust and the condition of the hole whether it has been embedded in the wood a long time or not. Since it is known at what periods certain types of knobs, brasses, and hinges were used, the hardware found on antique furniture, or the marks left by the original fittings, are useful in dating a piece.

It is possible in the case of furniture with large turnings-tip tables, for example-to determine whether a piece is modern or not by taking measurements. Old turnings which have seasoned for many years have shrunk unevenly and are never perfectly round. In the case of smaller turnings, however, the inequalities of age can be produced by soaking the wood before turning and drying it rapidly afterward, as it then contracts unevenly.

Smell may also play a part in establishing the validity of a piece. Like old houses, old furniture often has an unmistakable odor of oldness about it which modern pieces do not have. Nor apparently does this indication of age cling to the antique parts of an assembled piece. This aroma is most noticeable in what the furniture trade calls "case goods"-desks, bureaus, chests, cupboards, and cabinets. It is also present in old clocks. Almost any genuine old piece with doors or drawers is apt to have it, and thus far the fakers have not discovered a way to reproduce it. The drawers of old spice cabinets often smell of the spices once kept in them, but that is different, and such scents can be duplicated.

Sometimes, to meet a popular craze, an article will be reproduced wholesale. When the public became infatuated with glass paperweights containing tiny flowers and other designs in color, hundreds of thousands were made for the antique market, including some clever imitations from Japan and Czechoslovakia. People who had long collected these delightful glass objects and could tell by the look and feel of them that they were not genuine weren't fooled by these fakes, but many inexperienced persons bought the new ones and were probably as pleased with them as if they had been genuinely old.

Faked pedigrees often help to sell antiques. Dealers endowed with vivid imaginations can invent stories intended to spur on a customer for almost everything in their shops. Clever rogues some of them are, but after a while some of their stories have a familiar sound. "I got that from an old lady who inherited it from her grandmother. It has been in the same family for generations." It should be added that this was said of a palpable fake. "I tried for years to get this piece and had to pay practically what I am asking for it." And of another object, "A prominent collector who has had his eye on it is going to feel awfully sorry if he learns it has been sold." Of still another specimen, "I like it myself and hate to sell it because you don't see many of them nowadays." Whether the men or women dealers are the worse offenders is a moot question.

The advice usually given to beginners is to do business with reputable dealers only, at least until one has learned by study to tell good examples from bad, and gained sufficient experience to avoid most of the pitfalls. But part of the fascination of the pursuit is to visit all kinds of shops, from the unassuming junk shop in a city back street to the country barn in which even the haylofts are filled with old things. Despite all warnings, there is not a collector who has not at one time or another bought spurious antiques in the belief that they were genuine.

There are few branches of the antique trade that have not at one time or another been exploited by the counterfeiters. As soon as there is a demand in a certain field, the fakes begin to appear, many of them excellent imitations. It is easy, for example, to confer a look of age and venerability on pewter by reproducing the patina, and then mark it with the touch of some American maker whose work is being sought. Old unmarked pewter is frequently impressed with forged touches. Freshly marked pewter should always be regarded with suspicion, and one should make sure that a particular piece is something the pewterer whose touch it bears could have made and is not of later date. Pewter in the course of time becomes pitted and eroded, and while the fakers can give new pewter the old look, they have never succeeded in giving it the old feeling. The surface condition of the metal is the surest guide to its age.

It is also easy to give iron the appearance of antiquity. Mention has been made of the Washington andirons which a dealer had reproduced, and many other old styles have been duplicated, including the Hessiansoldier andirons. Old cast-iron hitching posts with horses' heads or in the form of a Negro boy holding a ring have been imitated. There are blacksmiths in New England who make a business of reproducing artistic old handwrought iron, such as doorknockers, foot scrapers, and all kinds of building and furniture hardware. There are also manufacturers of antique metalware reproductions in brass as well as iron. These are not made for the purpose of deceiving anyone, but since even the worn appearance of age is simulated, unscrupulous dealers sometimes claim that such reproductions are original and it must be owned it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they are or not. Old brass is apt to be a lighter color and not so reddish as modern brass, as it contained more zinc, with perhaps some tin, and less copper than is now used. If the style of hardware used on furniture is not appropriate to the period or the type of the particular piece, the claim that it is original is not true.

Museums and libraries have suffered from the depredations of thieves, who have carried away old paintings, prints, small objets d'art, and books. One of the most notorious thefts of this kind in New England occurred a few years ago, when a $So,ooo Shakespeare folio was stolen from the library of Williams College. The ancient tome was taken by a thirty-six-year-old shoe salesman from Glens Falls, New York, who posed as a college professor to gain access to the library. Three Buffalo men had promised him $10,000 for taking the book, but he said that all he received was $200.

The robbery was carefully planned and the thief was coached in the part he was to play. He paid several visits to the Buffalo Public Library "to become acquainted with books."

"Then," said the shoe salesman, "with a forged letter from the president of Middlebury College to the president of Williams College-with my hair grayed and with ribboned Oxford glasses on-I introduced myself to the librarian of Williams College-it was a womanas Professor Sinclair E. Gillingham."

When the librarian permitted him to use the folio for research, he substituted a dummy copy for the original.

This was in February. Early in July the bogus professor and the three Buffalo men were arrested. Late in August the United States Attorney's office announced that the book, which was described as having a red gold-tooled morocco binding measuring nine by thirteen inches, had been recovered.

The disposal of excessively rare books and wellknown pictures must present an almost insurmountable "fencing" problem for the thief. Stolen masterpieces are seldom anything but white elephants. Stealing them is a crime that definitely does not pay, unless the theft i5 commissioned in advance by a crazy collector whose possessive passion has been excited by some rarity. Such a possibility was suggested when Watteau's small masterpiece, "L'Indifferent," was stolen from the Louvre ten years ago. Here was a picture measuring only eight by ten inches valued at $100,000. It was a condensed fortune, a piece of concentrated perfection of a size which permitted continued concealment. Did some collector have an uncontrollable impulse to possess it? The suggestion was not altogether fantastic.

Manufacturing antique picture frames which show all the ravages of time is a business that has grown up in recent years. It is an honest trade. The frames are frankly sold as replicas. They are made because museums and private collectors find them better suited to old pictures than the heavy frames which were in vogue during the nineteenth century. Dealers have discovered that they help to sell old paintings.

The Caledonian Market in London used to be a favorite haunt of American collectors. This vast open-air secondhand mart is now closed, but in the far twenties it was a great attraction. I went there with an Irish artist, who was in quest of frames for his own pictures, and we came away with several old paintings, purchased solely for their frames.

One day in the back room of a bookshop in a New England city I saw a painting of a British man-of-war under full sail. There was no mistaking the vessel's nationality as she was flying the British Union Jack. The bookseller, who dealt in prints and an occasional painting as well as books, had just acquired it. I remarked on what an excellent piece of work it was.

"But it's too bad," I said, "it isn't an American ship. You could sell it quicker for more money." Passing the dealer's shop a couple of weeks later, I noticed the picture in the window. It had undergone a remarkable change. By the simple altering of a square inch or two of the canvas the ship had been given a new character. Instead of the British flag, she was flying the Stars and Stripes.

One method used by print thieves who despoil rare books of their illustrations is to leave a string treated with acid between the leaves. By the time they return the acid has eaten the plate free, so it can be easily slipped out and smuggled away.

Book collectors who have rare books that are imperfect because a page or two happens to be missing have been known to take the leaves they lack from library or booksellers' copies. Synthetic first editions are sometimes assembled by unscrupulous booksellers, but only inexperienced bibliophiles fall for such fakes.

The late Crompton T. Johnson, the rare-book dealer, who at one time had a bookshop in Farmington, Connecticut, missed several valuable old volumes from his collection. The books turned up in the hands of a leading New York bookseller, who, when Mr. Johnson claimed them, promptly turned the books over to him. A thief can pass no better title than he has, and even a bona fide purchaser for value acquires no title to stolen property as against the rightful owner. The New York dealer remembered purchasing the books from a promi nent woman who was one of his customers. Although it was known that she sometimes visited Farmington, he did not believe that a person of her social standing could possibly be the thief and he never mentioned the matter to her.

It has been said, "Some steal for profit-they are criminals; some for pleasure-they are kleptomaniacs; others for pleasure and profit combined-they are collectors."

In March, 1948, a gang of thieves who for two years had been looting the homes of summer residents in Maine and Vermont of antiques and selling them in southern New England were rounded up in Auburn, Maine. They were held on a charge of stealing a grandfather clock worth one hundred and fifty dollars. Those arrested were Gordon A. Jones, his wife, her two brothers, and another man, all of Auburn. Among the Maine summer homes burglarized were those of former United States Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Dr. Donald Gates, a Massachusetts physician. The former had a valuable desk taken, the latter a highboy which had been in his family two hundred years. The police estimated that the thieves during the two years they were active stole antiques worth a hundred thousand dollars.

The gang operated only in the winter, using different methods of approach. If there was snow on the ground, they would take a circuitous route to the back door of a house, so their footsteps would not be visible from the road. At other times, they boldly drove a truck up to the front door and loaded it. Sometimes they lived for several days in a house while wrapping and packing china and glassware in boxes. They did not make a clean sweep of a place, but usually took only what looked good to them, a few things here, a few things there. Some houses were entered and nothing was touched. Their thefts were generally not discovered until months afterward, when the owners came to open their houses for the summer.

Some of the loot was disposed of in Massachusetts, but most of it to dealers in Connecticut, first in Manchester, and then in Hartford, Glastonbury, Clinton, East Haddam, Saybrook, Willimantic, Rocky Hill, and Windsor. Jones, who did the peddling, posed as a Christmas-tree agent from Maine. He also claimed he was a worker in a Connecticut factory and collected the antiques from his neighbors when he went home to Vermont week ends. Later he said he was an antique dealer with a large warehouse in Maine. Actually, Jones knew little about antiques or their value, and got only a tithe of what the things were worth, but his story seemed plausible to the dealers who bought the stolen goods. They often buy from freelance "pickers."

A great deal of the plunder was recovered by the State Police. Some of it was still in the antique shops, but most of it was in the hands of the persons to whom the dealers had sold it. In almost every instance they could remember those who had bought the things which they had acquired from Jones, and the police were thus able to trace the antiques into private homes all over Connecticut and part of Massachusetts. The dealers were, of course, the losers, as they had to refund the purchase price to their customers, but were themselves without recourse. A few dealers to whom Jones tried to sell declined to buy. Antiques by the truckload looked too good to be true. They were the lucky ones.