Fakes - How To Recognize And Avoid Them
( Originally Published 1907 )
IT was long ago remarked, sagely, that the world is given to lying, and it is not charging the sellers of old furniture with more than the average of tergiversation to suggest that some of them make misrepresentations; although many a piece is precisely what it is claimed to be, and many another is offered honestly upon its merits, of which the buyer must judge.
As to date and history, there are peculiar temptations toward misstatement. Many buyers attach so much higher a value to an article with a history that the manufacture of imitations with fine old dates cut on them is quite an industry. It is a particularly barefaced kind of imposition.
And yet, dates are by no means always to be doubted. Sewall, he of diary fame, in getting a chest for each of his children, had each chest marked with the date of the youthful owner's birth.
In learning to discriminate between the genuine and the imitation the old-furniture collector comes to see that there is much to consider and that constant watchfulness is necessary.
Here is a rule which, in buying, gives a sense of security. It is:-If less is paid for an antique than it could be made for, it must needs be genuine.
But, after the buyer is satisfied as to the age, he may very properly pay much more than the cost of making, on account of considerations of rarity or shape.
The danger of being imposed upon is further minimized by buying articles that have not been restored. It is safer to buy them worn and unrepaired, and to have the mending and polishing done afterward.
Entering, one day, an antique shop in an old Massachusetts town, we were told by the clerk that the proprietor was in the workroom behind. But it proved to be an inopportune time, and he was distinctly embarrassed, for he was putting the finishing touches to a fine Chippendale chair. He grinned with a sort of sheepish defiance, and said : "At any rate, I made it out of the wood of an old tree, and so it will really be an old chair. And I 'll stain it to look like mahogany!"
An acquaintance, who possesses and highly prizes a supposedly ancient Chippendale of beautiful design, has not noticed, or at least has not drawn a deduction from the notice, that there is yellow in the gleam of the wood at the edges of the arms, where touching and handling have already begun to wear away the polish and the artificial stain. The chair was bought at the sale of some studio effects, but the buyer should not only have observed that the wood was not so heavy as good mahogany ought to be, but ought to have been suspicious of the deep red color, for it pointed infallibly to imitation or at least to mahogany ill-treated.
With oak, deceit is often attempted. From two hundred to three hundred years ago, oak was what was most commonly used for furniture; but, of that early period, it is seldom that a veritable piece is found, outside of museums; hence the temptation to counterfeit.
There are various methods of darkening new oak to the color and appearance of old; a curious one is to use a wash of old iron in hot vinegar, to give the requisite hue, before the piece is polished; or acids and stains and fumes may lend their aid. Another method is to coat new-made oak furniture with paint, and then remove the paint, in patches, with potash. And, for the worm-holes that are so often found in the genuine articles, of different woods, they are looked upon by many as such indubitable signs of age that, to meet the demand, they are sometimes put into new wood, one method of perforation being with very fine drills.
An acquaintance called one evening to inquire what we did to our old chairs and things when they had worm-holes, and he explained that he had acquired an old worm-eaten desk upon which he wished to apply the remedy immediately. We tried to laugh a little at the enthusiasm which would not permit another night of life to worms which had been at work for decades, but the inquirer was a new and very ardent collector.
We told him to scrape, where the worm-holes were, to the bare wood, and with a brush dose all the holes with corrosive sublimate. We also suggested that where fuzz showed at a worm-hole a thin wire would sometimes drag out the worker. Being a doctor, he got corrosive sublimate without difficulty, and next day we went over to see his prize.
The desk was of shapely Empire design, but the brasses were oval plates that did not belong with it. However, new brasses are often put on old pieces. But the thing looked wrong. The drawers, pulled out, showed great spills of ink and general duskiness. That is a master-stroke of the artful reproducer. Spilled ink within desk drawers is looked upon as the sign and symbol of extreme age-it is offered as proof positive of antiquity-when, as a matter of fact, a drawer is one of the last places where ink would by any reasonable chance be spilled. The corners of the drawers were telltale. The dovetailing suggested machinery, being as even as the corner of a starch-box.
And, somehow, the purchaser's pride seemed to have waned. Then, with a smile, came the words : "That sublimate wash is a good thing. I think the worms are pretty dead, now. Here 's one I dug out with a wire!" And he displayed an infinitesimal bird-shot.
The blow was fatal to his collecting. Within a week his Morris chair was dragged again into light and he planned to "do" his dining room in Mission furniture. His dream of Empire was past.
One of the things to be looked upon with suspicion is the finding of an old document, to the dealer's intense surprise, in a secret drawer.
Old methods of dovetailing are seldom followed in reproductions. Look with doubt upon bureaus and desks whose brasses point to previous to 1770 but whose drawers can be pushed in instead of being stopped by projecting edges. Preserve a cautious attitude toward pieces which, although in the main new, have had old parts grafted on them. Ornaments and carvings, in relief, may be reproductions made by filling a mould with mahogany sawdust and glue, under pressure; the mixture will take a polish, but has not the texture of the genuine wood.
But, after all, buyers deceive themselves more often than sellers intentionally deceive them. And the collector will meet with quite as much honest misrepresentation as dishonest-misrepresentation based upon mistaken family tradition or upon ignorance of styles.
A dear old lady in Massachusetts prizes among the chief of her household possessions an ancestral bed "in which Washington once slept." She is absolutely sure of this, and it would be needlessly cruel to say anything to the contrary to her; but, alas! the combination of twisted rope and pineapple and acanthus leaf points to a period when Washington was "dust and his good sword rust." It may be added that the acanthus leaf, when found alone, although it is usually associated with Empire, is an old ornamentation as well, it being of the Renaissance.
Family tradition, no matter how honest, how sincere, must always be received with caution. Even an unbroken tradition is never strong as to precise dates. Under the merging influence of time, centuries are blended and decades imperceptibly melt into one another. Many a piece of furniture of not more than one hundred years in age is held by family tradition to be "over two hundred and fifty years old."
But if, for example, tradition has it, unbrokenly, that certain furniture was part of a wedding outfit of a certain couple, then the chances are that tradition is true, and, without trusting to that for the date, the time of the wedding may be looked up in some record and the age of the furniture thus fixed.
A friend who lives in a charming old Italian villa feels no doubt that the furniture is of the period of 1702, not only because there is every sign of age, but because tradition has it that the furnishings were part of the original furnishings of the villa, and the records declare that the house was built in 1702.
More than anything else, a collector comes to cultivate plain common-sense in examining old furniture; he judges largely, of course, by his knowledge of makes and styles, but he also weighs not only the statements of the would-be seller, whether he be a professional dealer or a simple householder, but also the probabilities of correctness, as gathered from the seller's personality, manner, and surroundings, and the likeliness of his really knowing the actual truth. And as experience and observation widen there comes a sort of intuition, a sixth sense, upon which one must learn to rely.
Too much credulity and too great a readiness to doubt are alike to be avoided.
When your old brass andirons totter and fall apart when a fire is built, and you see a stream of white solder on the hearth, do not too rashly decide that you have been deceived, for many a pair of genuine old andirons, in which the central interior rod has been worn out by time, has been repaired with solder instead of by blacksmith's work.
A genuine letter from South Carolina, offering some old chairs and slender-legged card-tables, was shown year after year by one antique dealer to ex-plain the source of supply of a line of old pieces which was kept constantly replenished from the workshop. The glamour of that letter removed doubt from the minds of a long series of purchasers of "those dear little Carolinian tables and chairs."
Proprietors of the elaborate old-furniture shops study closely the pictures of furniture in the various collections, and also the descriptions given in books on furniture.
In a recent book, one of the pictures was that of a beautiful mirror with its principal ornament missing. The author described the mirror in terms of high praise and suggested that the missing ornament was probably of gilt and urn-shaped. And already some of the large shops offer a "veritable antique" precisely similar to that picture except that the missing ornament, richly gilt and of urn shape, is triumphantly in place.
There are many Empire chests of drawers in existence that are spurious, and some of them are made ingeniously by splitting Empire bed-posts and using the pieces as pilasters on the front corners of very plain and simple chests of drawers. As many as sixteen pilasters can be had from one old set of high posts.
The vaulting ambition to deceive sometimes o'er-leaps itself, as when genuine old Windsor chairs of hickory or ash are taken in hand and masqueraded into mahogany, so that a better price can be obtained. It is probably safe to say that no old Windsor chair was ever made in mahogany; certainly, if there ever were any, they were very few; mahogany was never deemed a good wood for the Windsor bendings.
The grain of different woods can easily be learned-at least, that of oak, and also that of nut woods, such as walnut. These, no matter how they are dyed or stained, still retain some characteristic which should never allow them to be mistaken for mahogany.
A pillar which shows the flowerlike flames of mahogany is necessarily veneered, and the line where the veneer joins can be found; yet many a prospective purchaser of a table whose pillar shows a flaming glow and a fine pattern in the grain such as are found only in quarter-sawed wood, is assured that it is solid mahogany.
Dutch marquetry, in really beautiful pieces, is to a considerable extent sold nowadays; and more than once we have seen it described as "old" Dutch marquetry. Some of it may be old, for there was a great deal of fine marquetry made in the old days; but in the Holland workshops marquetry in old pat-terns is now turned out in large quantities. Much of it is highly desirable in shape; the only defect is a possible tendency not to stand the steam heat of American houses, there being a great number of little pieces fastened on with glue. If the buyer does not look for age and history and association there is no reason why it should not be bought.
"Old Dutch" is by common acceptation supposed to imply the Colonial period of Stuyvesant and Van Twiller and other Knickerbocker worthies, and so one is apt to consider "old Dutch silver" to be quite antique. There is, of course, genuine old Dutch silver still obtainable; but it is something that lends it-self readily to reproduction; and the market for it being great, and purchasers being very willing to believe in its genuineness, there are, for example, more veritable old Dutch chatelaine bag-clasps for sale in New York than all the ladies of Amsterdam eve possessed. An officer of the Dutch army who knows a great deal about old silver, and has a fine collection, especially rich in the quaint silver toys now so rare, has told us that little really good old silver is now to be had in his country, and that the making of reproductions is a recognized industry which deceives only the stranger. In the American market a piece of sixteenth century or seventeenth century Dutch silver is most probably only a copy, made in Holland, of a design of that period.
And as for windmills and "Apostles" upon spoons -of course, there are originals, but such things grow on silverware in America much oftener than they did long ago in Germany and the Netherlands.
A curious industry, which was never intended in its early days to possess any misleading trait, flourishes on the East Side of New York. The little shops of Russian Jew copperworkers began to be known, a few years ago, to a constantly widening public. The little dark rooms, where handicrafts-men work at forges just as their forefathers worked in Russia, began to be visited by wondering purchasers of the brasswork. People went away, telling of their prizes in "old copper." The number of these shops rapidly increased. The dealers soon found that Americans wished to believe that what they bought was old; that visitors must have the ancient, "brought from Russia," with some far distant place of manufacture definitely proved by a hieroglyphical Hebrew mark.
It is really admirable work, most of it, in samovars and platters and candlesticks, and there is a small proportion of the really old-but if you have a dealer's confidence he will tell you that little of this really old goes to visiting buyers or to the up-town shops that have begun to handle these wares.
When a public exhibit of old furniture is permitted to give incorrect information, it is peculiarly unfortunate. In this respect Philadelphia has several sins to answer for. In the collection of the oldest Philadelphia library is a grandfather's clock that is said to have been the property of Oliver Cromwell. This belief is based upon the tradition that the auctioneer who sold it, a half-century after Cromwell's death, declared that it had once been the Protector's. A slight enough basis, this, for the perpetuation of such a claim! Surely, never before or since was auctioneer's careless boast so honored!
One feels at once a sense of annoyance and incredulity, and then wonders if there is no way of settling such a question. And there is. For the name of the maker of the clock is upon it, and, from the records of the association of clockmakers it is learned that he did not finish his apprenticeship and reach the dignity of maker until after Cromwell's death.
In examining this or other clocks, it is well to re-member that long pendulums were not applied to clocks until nearly 166o, that a paper calling attention to an improved pendulum was read before the Royal Society ten years later, and that not until about 168o did pendulums begin to be commonly made in London. Short pendulums came in at a still later day.
In the same collection is a fine old desk, once William Penn's. It is genuine; but incorrect restoration put upon it the bonnet-top of a later period, and not until after many years of exhibition, and of giving a wrong impression of style, did the management, very recently, have the incorrect top taken off.
In the extremely valuable Girard collection is a desk, with a music-box concealed in its top, upon which one plainly reads the date, "1795." But it is of a style not made until into the 1800's, and the observer is at once unsettled and disturbed. It is only with difficulty, the desk being in the centre of a railed-off section, that some small lettering can be made out to the effect that it is the music that is of the date of 1795!
Philadelphia is not the only place to show such mistakes of knowledge or judgment, for in the collection at Mount Vernon a beautiful chair of Louis the Sixteenth is marked as being of the seventeenth century.
The collector, seeking to add to his own treasures, must be watchful in regard to "improved" pieces. The improvements may be highly admirable, but, even if so, he should see that no wrong impression of date is given by them and that they are not permitted to enhance the price unduly. "All things are not what they seem; skim-milk masquerades as cream;" and so fine inlays are set deceptively into otherwise plain fronts, and homely board doors are replaced by doors of latticed glass, and ormolu mounts give distinction to the undistinguished, and gorgeous handles supersede wooden knobs, and cabrioles take the place of straight legs upon many a chair and secretary-all to the confusion of the unwatchful.