There is an abundance of ‘Not Quite Right’ antiques on the market, but far from being things to avoid at all costs, many are worthwhile purchases. Reproductions, fakes, half age and damaged pieces, marriages and conversions may be anathema to the purist, but may be perfect for the home furnisher and decorator.
The most important thing is that these items should be revealed for what they are and commensurate prices asked and paid. Problems only arise when a buyer pays top price for an undisturbed, complete, unbroken original and does not get what he bargained for.
Reproduction does not necessarily mean new. We know the form of many ancient Greek marble sculptures, now lost forever, from the bronze reproductions the Romans made 2000 years ago. A reproduction may be an antique in itself or made yesterday in resin.
Quality is always the important consideration. There are many fine pieces of well-crafted furniture in the manner of the 18th century, some being faithful replicas of the originals. Other pastiches would fool only the most optimistic, as they were made over 100 years ago. These are simultaneously reproduction and antique.
Our American cousins call these ‘half age’ pieces ‘centennials,’ usually because the principle revival of a style occurs on its centennial anniversary. A well made, long set of late Victorian but Chippendale-style dining chairs will be expensive, but not the high price a genuine 18th century set commands. Reproductions from the mid-20th century are much cheaper, allowing the same look to be available for a variety of budgets.
Fakes are sometimes difficult to love, as they were (and are) made with the intent to deceive and so are inherently wicked. The silver recently made in Russia but hallmarked with 19th century Imperial period marks are fakes, while the same pieces without the fraudulent marks would be reproductions. The late 19th century silver from Hanau, Germany with fake British marks is equally problematic. Many of these are fine and valuable silver treasures in their own right that can be appreciated for their own excellent qualities, regardless of the spurious marks.
Some categories of fakes have become established collectables in their own right. The work of the famous French porcelain maker Samson is a case in point. The quality of his late 19th century copies exceeds any fakes produced today.
Neophyte Australian collectors notoriously want porcelain to be ‘18th century, perfect, marked, money is no object (up to $50) and it should have belonged to Marie Antoinette.’ While collectors soon become more practical and realistic, the uncharitable prejudice against damaged porcelain customarily remains, as for other imperfect objects.
It is always a bonus, but usually fetched at a premium price, to own an unblemished example. However, such an objective may bar a collector from ever owning an example at all. The Venus de Milo may be quite broken, but we are all still waiting for the Louvre to cast her out. A damaged cup can give pleasure when used daily, while the rare, costly flawless example must remain imprisoned in a glass cabinet.
Many types of antiques and collectables occupy merely the opposite ends of the spectrum, being in original character or maybe broken and/or repaired. Glass, porcelain and marble cannot be ‘unbroken.’ Fortunately, many of the accidents that befall furniture can be reversed without severely affecting the character of the piece.
Furniture tends to be much more fluid in its peregrinations through history. Handles and legs are easily changed to conform to a new fashion. Similarly, veneer is stripped and things are pickled; original painted finishes are stripped off, while polished furniture is smartened up with a coat of paint.
Wardrobes find themselves turned into bookcases or media consoles. Tables are shortened to coffee tables while bookcase tops get legs of their own to become crystal cabinets.
Many changes made to furniture reflect changes in the way we live and what we need. Potty chairs are no longer needed, so the best of these have been converted to fine, but not original, armchairs.
Washstands are more useful converted to desks, and so forth. Often the original reason for the change is still valid, so the altered piece is far more serviceable than one in untampered condition.
‘Marriages’ are often a reaction to these changes and attempts to reverse the course of domestic history. The most frequently encountered marriage is following the separation of the two pieces of a bookcase to give a sideboard (the base) and a crystal cabinet (the top) for reasons including lower ceiling heights, family division or the caprices of fashion. Now compatible but orphan bookcase tops and bases are ‘married,’ re-creating an attractive and practical imitation of the much more expensive original and complete bookcase.
Sometimes Not Quite Right antiques or ‘naughty pieces’ as they used to be called, can reflect changing social conditions that might provide an impetus for intentionally collecting these pieces.
One genre that springs to mind is the ‘medieval’ furniture made in the 1820s out of old carved fragments of furniture mixed with new bits hewn from ancient wood sourced from demolished buildings, early Georgian recycling as it were. Fashion favoured Romantic windswept ruined castles and horror stories, from which the teenaged Mary Shelley’s tale of Frankenstein’s monster emerged triumphant in 1818.
The demand for ancient ‘baronial’ furnishings far outstripped supply and ‘Wardour Street Specials’ (in London’s Soho) filled the gap. Now quite old, these concoctions cause great confusion to those not conversant with the caprices of history. They are perfect collectables for those who are thrilled by Sir Walter Scott, Cathy and Heathcliffe, Byron and such like, not to mention today’s Goths and vampire groupies.
Equally grotesque furniture, but more domestic in scale is the ‘carve up’ of about 1900, a vivid souvenir of female emancipation. Late Victorian and Edwardian gentlewomen, all grace and serenity, could hardly sully their families’ reputations by stooping to paid employment to avoid boredom. In true suffragistic spirit, they laid down the piano lid, the paintbrush and the needle that employed their forbears in favour of wielding the chisel with political vigour and determination.
Hence, many a plain mahogany or oak Georgian piece was dragged down from the attic or maid’s room to be ‘enriched’ with a riot of decorative shallow carving. Most were truly horrible neo-medieval pastiches, but some are a testament to the unexpected skills of the genteel Lady-woodworker ■