Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Old Furniture

( Originally Published 1924 )



In view of a recent action in the Law Courts, it may be well to give some hints to my readers concerning the purchase of old English furniture. It is necessary first of all to explain that nothing can supersede experience and that a fairly intimate knowledge of the furniture of the period is requisite before a collector can claim to be an expert. He will not, for instance, look for an Elizabethan hat and umbrella stand, or an early Stuart sideboard with a cellaret, nor will he expect to find walnut lamp stands richly carved in the manner of bedposts, and if he sees a mahogany or walnut bureau with a great deal of carving upon its flap, he will immediately recognise that it has no interest to him.

First impressions count for a great deal in forming an opinion about furniture, because the most difficult thing that a forger has to copy is the effect of the polish-what the expert calls the " patina." Pieces of old furniture were treated with beeswax and turpentine, and polished with what our grandparents called "elbow grease," producing an entirely different effect from a modern French polishing. In French polishing, the grain has to be filled up, and a mirror-like effect of polish obtained on the furniture in very even fashion, whereas the old polish has a depth and solidity, and an inequality that at present defies reproduction. In consequence, the first idea of the expert is, "Does the thing look right ?" "Is it such as the original cabinet maker would have made it? "It may be desirable to remove one of the handles from, say, a chest of drawers, in order to see whether the wood is of a different colour underneath the handle to what it is on either side, and if, on the removal, it is found to be even in colour all over the front of the drawer, it may generally be taken for granted that the piece is not an old piece, and that the polish has been put on lately, because, in the really old pieces, the handle would have covered up the wood, and the wood underneath it would have been of quite a different colour to what it is near by.

Taking the same chest of drawers as an example, it will be well to look to the lining of the drawers. If they are of pine, the piece is certainly faked, because pine was never used for drawer linings of good walnut or of early mahogany furniture until about 1780, and then only occasionally. Pine becomes reddish in time, and a little cut with a penknife would quickly determine whether the linings of the drawers have been stained to a particular colour, and what they were originally made of. The way in which the drawer-frames are joined together is important, the old drawer frames of oak had oak pegs in their tenons, and the system of dovetailing, impossible to explain in the limits of a chapter of this sort, was different to that adopted in the present day.

The screws used in a piece of furniture have to be examined, and by the aid of a strong glass, a hand-made screw can quickly be detected from a machine-made one. The collector must not jump to the conclusion that all gimlet-pointed screws are machine-made, and date from the establishment of the firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain, because, prior to the history of that firm, there were gimlet-pointed screws; but as they were made by hand there are variations in them-slight eccentricities in thread, and an irregularity in their edges.

Then the expert needs to have some knowledge of the grain of wood, because apple, pear and lime are all used in modern fakes (one is almost compelled to use the verb as a noun, although, strictly speaking, it should be an adjective) in lieu of mahogany, and they are stained to the colour of mahogany. This can sometimes be detected merely by the veining of the wood, but very often a little bit has to be cut away, to show what is underneath.

Pieces of furniture that are decorated with floral paintings are generally of satin wood, and the old satin wood was a straight-grained wood of quite pale lemon colour, not, as a rule, a rich florid wood of a deep golden colour ; and the painting upon it should be very closely examined with the pocket glass, because old painting is never even in surface: in places it sinks in, where the wood is a little soft, whereas new painting has exactly the same quantity of relief all over the panel, and the difference between a wreath of flowers painted on a satin wood panel a few months ago and that painted on an old piece of furniture can often be detected by the tips of the fingers without any further examination. In mahogany furniture there are divergences of weight ; the modern mahogany is much lighter to lift than furniture made with old wood.

The old West Indian mahogany was a very heavy, close-grained wood, the modern Honduras is quite different. Where there is much ornamentation, it should be examined with great care, whether it is applied or carved. In most instances, the raised ornamentation on old furniture was carved from the solid wood. In modern fakes it is always applied ; it is too costly to carve it from the solid, and then one comes to a broad general rule that the old manufacturers and carvers were much less particular about the quantity of wood they wasted than are the modern fakers. There is a certain sense of breadth about their work. It is not cramped. The maker had plenty of wood, and plenty of time, and would obtain a satisfactory price for his piece of furniture, and in consequence, he did not stint his material. The modern copyist does stint it, and loses that quality of breadth and freedom so apparent in the old furniture. This is particularly the case with carved work. The old carving was very freely done, and a great deal of wood was cut away, almost carelessly, and moreover the carving was irregular and eccentric ; two opposite pieces did not exactly balance, and there was a freedom about it, a life, an ease, an under-cutting that modern work entirely lacks.

Where there are ornamental metal mounts, known as "ormolu," on, for example, a fine writing-table, they must be very carefully scrutinised, and as a rule it is well to have one of them off and look at it under the glass, because there is a granulated surface to the back of modern ormolu work entirely different to the surface of old work. Moreover, old ormolu work is actually cisele, and has almost the appearance of jewellery. It is finely and delicately done; the mounts by such artists as Gouthiere, Caffieri, and those on cabinets by Oeben, Riesener, or David, are works of art, worth careful examination, engraved with tools by hand, as also are the signatures, and not produced in moulds or stamped by any electric process, as are the imitations. It is really signs of mechanism that one has to look for in faked furniture-mounts turned out by mechanical process in large numbers, carving done by fretwork machines, where the edges are almost sure to have the effect of the machine still left upon them, particularly where the fret has been turned round at a corner, because when the turning takes place the fretsaw was still going, whereas the workman would have of course stopped using his saw when he turned the fretwork round.

Questions of colour have to come in; old furniture fades according to the position that it has occupied in a room, and one has to form an idea from the fading whether it has been stood out in the sun to artificially fade it all over, or whether one sees where the rays of light have fallen, and where they have faded the wood, and, in contradistinction, where the shadows have come and the wood has not been faded, and in the places where the light would not naturally reach, one has to look for the dark, rich depths of colour which old furniture should show in such positions.

Modern gilt work can often be detected by the use of a little turpentine, which will quickly reveal whether the gilt has been recently applied. Very rich and highly-figured veneers are to be doubted. The older furniture had much simpler veneers, with much less figuring upon them than many of the fakes possess, and veneered furniture requires to be carefully examined at its edges because modern veneers are very thin, and exceedingly level in their thickness throughout, whereas old veneers were thicker, and were uneven, thinner in some places than they were in others.

Modern lacquer work can often be detected by the aid of a pin, because if it pierces the lacquer it is certainly new; old lacquer is of a hardness almost inconceivable, and becomes harder and harder as years go on. Modern lacquer is soft, badly made, and has a sort of gummy effect which it is not easy to explain unless one has a sample of it to show.

Then, one has to have a knowledge of the tools that were used in the eighteenth century, because there are many tools-chisels, gouges, etc.-used nowadays which the eighteenth-century joiners did not possess, and the marks of these modern tools are often perceptible, and sometimes give away the whole trick.

The most difficult fakes to detect are those where parts, say, of a set of chairs have been used throughout the new set-a leg here, an arm there, part of a back somewhere else-and where the faker announces that there have been repairs, whereas, as a matter of fact, he has cut up two or three old chairs and distributed the material through the new set so as to entrap the unwary. Here the penknife and the glass come in handy, because the new wood (often of two kinds) can generally be detected, and the new carving never exactly copies the old. It is tighter and harder, and done with less freedom, and, moreover, the colour is too even throughout the whole of the furniture. The faker also has generally forgotten the effects of sunlight in a room where chairs are constantly being moved about, sometimes in the dark corners and sometimes in front of a window.

Worm marks are very cleverly copied, but as a rule modern worm marks have no dust at the bottom of them, or if they have the dust is fresh and bright in colour, and the use of a pin on which a touch of gum has been put will sometimes bring up, from what appears to be an old worm mark, some powder of quite a different colour to the wood, showing that the worm mark is quite recent.

In furniture with handles, changes of fashion have made changes of handles. Old pieces very often show that underneath the drop handle the wood has been filled up with a peg, where at one time was a knob. The forger does not bother about this. He makes his piece of furniture and fastens on its handle. He forgets that seventy years ago the handles were taken off and knobs were put instead, owing to fashion, and then the knobs were taken away again and handles put back again.

In old marqueterie clock-cases it is important to notice that the marqueterie work was always irregular, the two sides often did not balance, and it was never cramped in design ; the new work almost always is.

In every instance, however, one has to fall back upon the general effect at first. Does the thing look right ? Is the colour right ? Is it faded in parts where it would naturally be faded ? Are the details as they should be, or do you find a Chippendale bookcase on a Queen Anne stand, or a design used in old walnut furniture which was not introduced till the late eighteenth century ?

Tapestry on the tops of tables must be very closely looked at. It has often been re-worked, and silks with quite modern colours used in. Carving and inlaying were never overcrowded on old furniture; plenty of plain space was allowed. The fakers almost always overdo it. The legs of tables must be looked at, if there are castors. The old ones show signs of having been cut away to fit in old heavy castors, now often replaced by modern ones, and it may generally be said that no piece of furniture should be bought at a high price unless every opportunity is given for looking at it underneath and examining it minutely.

There was a maker of Flanders jugs who knew that if a jug full of water was frequently set down an edge of the foot would become worn. He forgot, however, that a jug would only be set down on its front edge when held by its handle, and he wore away, in his forgery, the back edge, where the jug could not possibly be set down, just below the handle. The furniture forger very often makes very much the same mistake.

Let me strongly recommend a recent book on "Walnut Furniture," by R. W. Symons. Every collector of old furniture should possess it, and also Mr. Herbert Cescinsky's three volumes on English eighteenth-century furniture, and his important volume on clocks.