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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Furniture And Its Background - Part 6

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( Originally Published 1963 )



The number of panes of glass in the doors of a cupboard is also said to be a clue to the time when it was made, but there is little basis for believing this. Cupboards with thirteen panes of glass in each door, presumably indicating that they were made during the years when there were thirteen colonies or states, are less common than case pieces with thirteen stars on the hardware. The arrangement of small panes in various geometrical shapes started with as few as six or eight panes and went on to eleven, twelve, and up to seventeen. If there were only six or eight panes, they were likely to besquare ones. When the number was larger, the panes were cut in various shapes to work out intricate arrangements.

Hinges are less noticeable than other hardware. However, some of them are worth noticing. The strap hinge was an early design used on the outside of cupboards and the inside of chests. Butterfly hinges were early too, and may be found on cupboards, slant-top desks, and tables. Look also for rat-tail hinges on cupboards. The name came from the shape of the long supporting bracket for a simple hinge leaf. Incidentally, on furniture made before 1815 the screws were handmade.

Once in a while, a family changed the hardware on a piece of furniture to conform to the latest style. Where this was done, the holes for the original hardware can usually still be detected, even though they were filled in at the time. At the present, all period styles of brasses and hinges are being reproduced carefully.

Often, furniture is believed by its owners to be much older than it actually is.

In some instances pieces have come to be accepted as originals. A case in point is a desk donated for the current restoration of the White House in Washington, D.C., which was revealed in 1962 to have been misdated. When it was accepted, the desk was believed to be an early-nineteenthcentury piece made by a Baltimore cabinetmaker. It took close and re peated examination by a group of experts in antique furniture to decide that it was a skillful copy, made circa 1880, of an earlier style of desk. It is still an antique and still valuable, although it has been downgraded, particularly in price.

A few misnomers are being used constantly. It's hard to say how or why these incorrect names were acquired, but habit has pretty well fixed them now. A prime example is the Governor Winthrop desk. The term "Governor Winthrop" is generally applied to a good-sized slant-top desk, often with brass willow mounts. The slant-top desk was being made in England, but probably not in America, in 1707 when the last of three Colonial governors named Winthrop died. The Martha Washington sewing table really should be classified as Sheraton or perhaps Federal; it is even quite possible that it was made in this country too late for Martha Washington to have owned one. This is the table with semicircular ends flanking the legs and with the top hinged so that it can be opened at the ends. Reproductions often have plain wood sides, but the originals made around 1800 were either reeded wood or covered with silk. On the other hand, the Martha Washington chair takes its name from a chair with upholstered back and seat and open wooden arms that was in her home, Mount Vernon.

It takes years of experience, observation, study, and training to differentiate between an antique and a faithful reproduction. Some characteristics, however, cannot be reproduced. Perhaps the most unmistakable one is patina. This is a mellowing of the surface acquired by wood through age, use, dusting, and polishing. True patina is nonexistent on furniture only a few years old. Although fine mahogany, cherry, or maple, recently milled, may look handsome, they lack the glow that comes with a century or more of use. The tone or color of course varies with the wood, but the bloom grows with age and handling. Restoring and refinishing always must be done carefully to avoid damaging the patina.

The natural aging of wood contributes greatly to its patina. Backboards and drawers made of soft woods also color as they age. When they are taken out, the upper drawers may still be lightcolored because they were protected. But the backboards and the bottom of the lowest drawer, which have been exposed, will have darkened and mellowed to a soft shade of brown. Again, this darkening cannot be reproduced or faked by applying stain.

Normal signs of wear, which are to be expected, do not reduce the value of antique furniture. Loose bits of veneer, inlay, or molding, for instance, are not unusual. Carving done long ago will not be as sharp as it was originally, and the edges of a piece, particularly at the corners, will be slightly round instead of angled. Any surface may have been scarred inadvertently by dusting or polishing. Tabletops as well as feet and legs may show dents and bruises, and stretchers of chairs undoubtedly will be worn down across the top. Table leaves that were made of single boards will have warped and the circular tops of tilt tables shrunk.

The existence of these and other signs of wear are a pretty good indication that a piece of furniture is old and probably antique. When the sum total amounts to no more than minor damage, the value remains high. Excessive damage naturally reduces the possible selling price.

When it came to construction, cabinetmakers worked pretty much in the same way. Easiest to recognize are their methods of joining, in particular the mortise and tenon and the dovetail. Widely used as they were, these two vary in quality of workmanship. Allowance must be made, however, for the fact that the individual parts of joinings were larger and fitted more loosely before about 1725. The more general use of glue thereafter permitted smaller units and tighter fitting. Regionally, the most skilled of cabinetmakers varied somewhat in their methods of joining.

Marks made by certain tools also aid in the identification of antiques. If the slight ridges and hollows made by a hand plane cannot be seen, they can sometimes be felt. Saw marks looking like parallel scratches may still be evident on backboards and the interior of drawers that were left rough-finished. Flat and curved gouging chisels left their traces on the undersides of tables, on the framework of upholstered chairs and sofas, and on certain types of side chairs. The scribing awl, used to lay out work, also left its traces. All of these are unmistakable to the person who knows what to look for!

To sum up: A piece of genuinely antique furniture certainly will show some signs of wear. The details of its construction and any tool marks are important clues, at least to whether it was produced by a cabinetmaker during the 1700's or by machinery after 1850. Above all, the wood of antique furniture will show a patina that is both mellow and softly gleaming.

After these four points-patina, normal signs of wear, construction, and tool marks-have been noted, the state of preservation should also be considered, for it too contributes to the value of a piece. The need for major restoration diminishes value. A few of the restorations rated as major, which often are needed, are replacement of feet, Iegs, interior drawers, the top or any leaves of a table. Also major would be an almost complete restoration of veneer or a great deal of inlay. You may wish to have any such necessary work done by a qualified cabinetmaker. However, the amount, kind, and quality of the restoration work affects the value when you sell.

Combining a top and base that were not made originally to go together is another example of downgrading and reduction in value. Construction details will easily prove whether the two, sections belong together. This kind of thing occurs with highboys, corner cupboards, chest-on-chests, and other twopiece units.

The general tendency is to overvalue antiques-except by those people who wouldn't have a piece of antique furniture in their homes at any price. Wellknown names enhance value: A highboy authenticated as having been made by Benjamin Randolph of Philadelphia is considerably more valuable than one by an unknown cabinetmaker, however good his work, across the river in Trenton. A Philadelphia highboy would be appraised at-and could be sold for-several thousand dollars. In fact, any eighteenth-century highboy would have to be in awfully bad condition to be worth less than $500.

A sideboard made by William Lloyd in Springfield, Massachusetts, probably could be valued at as much as $3,000. On the other hand, a sideboard made at approximately the same time by a less gifted cabinetmaker in western Massachusetts or southern New Hampshire is likely to be worth somewhere between $500 and $1,000. Both sideboards are almost certain to have square, tapering legs and inlay in the manner of Hepplewhite, but the one by the unknown cabinetmaker undoubtedly would have poorer over-all proportions and less skillfully wrought details. However good the condition of an American Empire sideboard, this later piece will fall somewhere between $300 and $1,000.

Excellent examples of American Chippendale chairs may be valued at $1,000 or more, but a crude one may be worth less than $100. An American Empire side chair may be worth anything from a few dollars to about $150. All of them are salable.

The antique dealer who offers you $3,000 for a Lloyd sideboard probably has a customer in mind who would be interested in buying it. Should you postpone selling and approach him a few months later, his offer may no longer be open simply because the customer has found something else, or he may ask for time to interest someone in the piece. The appraised valuation of any piece of antique furniture is a sound one if it has been stated by an expert in the style of furniture. By all means, ask the expert to write out and date his appraisal. However, it is not always possible to sell in the open market for the same amount.

Since American Empire furniture is not considered stylish at present (1963), the market for it is so poor that it's hard to obtain any prices for it. In spite of the fact that many pieces are distinguished as well as practical, and were made from handsome mahogany or cherry, they would probably have to be sold now for much less than their appraised value. This picture can change at a whim in a few years.

On the other hand, Jacobean furniture imported from England finds a ready market. It sells for considerably less than eighteenth-century furniture made in this country after the fashions of Chippendale and Hepplewhite.



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