In assessing any antique or old collectable, there are five points of examination to consider: style, materials, construction,
wear, and lastly, marks. While the examples given here are basic, the formula remains the same. The expert has just added vastly more checkpoints to their list.
Like any good magician, naturally I cannot reveal too many secrets of my livelihood. You will have fun adding to your own checklist over the decades. A word to the wise – books have editors, and while the Internet is an excellent springboard for research, some entries are ‘Emperor Nasi Gorengs’ (of the rabbit proof Wall of China) posted by Fred from the pub.
Much antique and vintage furniture is wood, which is robust and durable. There remain substantial numbers of wooden sarcophagi and furnishings from ancient Egypt, and we have a single wooden table from classical Greece. However, for the sleuth, wood has the advantage of retaining the marks of tools, such as saws, chisels, and planes, as well as denting, oxidising and changing colour with age. Wooden furniture offers a wealth of forensic evidence to those who would interpret it.
A style, such as Chippendale, or Art Deco, automatically sets the earliest possible time that the object could be made. A Chippendale-style chair will be no earlier than the mid-18th century, while the Art Deco object cannot pre-date World War I. However, anything can be reproduced in an earlier style, so Art Deco’ style objects can be made any time over the last century.
It can help to know when a style was popular as a revival. Chippendale style chairs are likely be c. 1750-80, the first time the style was seen, or from a period when the style was revived, such as 1820-40, the 1880s, or 1920-40. Obviously the 1820s copies are both antique (legally, over 100 years old) and reproduction. The most desirable period for a style is when it was brand spanking new, cutting edge, and unlike anything that had been seen before.
Stylistic subtleties can also help date an object or suggest its place of origin. For example, copies of Chippendale style chairs made in 1880 will be narrower than the originals and be spindlier in proportion. Chippendale of 1920-40s usually has lots of (machine) carving, and cabriole legs – rare in the 18th century.
Materials can, like style, be an indicator of age and origin. Mahogany is grown in the Americas, so it is used in European furniture only from the end of the 17th century, and became popular in England after the 1720s. Hence ‘Jacobean’ furniture in mahogany must be a later copy. Similarly, a Chippendale chair made of Australian cedar is going to be a later copy.
While plywood was certainly known to the ancient Egyptians, the commercial manufacture of three-ply did not flourish until the late 19th century. Hence an ‘18th century’ chest of drawers boasting three-ply back and drawer bottoms has either been inexpertly repaired, or is all 20th century.
Bleaching on the side of a 1960s plastic chair is undesirable, but it does remind us that period 1960s plastic will fade, while the recent replicas of sixties plastic items are UV stabilised.
How something is made provides strong forensic evidence of age. Fortunately, most furniture we see comes from a period of dramatic change and development in methods of construction. Construction of timber furniture had remained relatively unchanged since Cleopatra until about 1750. Veneering, along with its offspring, marquetry and parquetry, gilding, painting, mortise and tenon and dovetail joints were all techniques from the ancient world. Even nails had changed little for thousands of years. Mid 18th century furniture exhibits almost identical marks of pit and rip saws, as well as smoothing planes that one sees on Pharonic furniture.
However, from about 1770 we have flywheel cut nails stamped from sheet metal, and by the 1850s we have the familiar wire cut nail of today. Ironically, the Georgian cut steel nail head resembles that from a nail gun. Similarly, hand-saw marks give way to the regular arcs produced by the circular saw made familiar by parodies of Edwardian melodramas, where the damsel is bound to the log. These arcs, although inconveniently present on rare late Georgian pieces, are usually an indication of manufacture after about 1850. The even, parallel strokes of the band saw, invented in about 1810, usually appear only on 20th century furniture. Skilled hand labour being much cheaper than the very costly machines explains the painfully slow adoption of mechanisation.
Wear is a double edged sword. Abuse of furniture is all too common. Chairs are rocked on and break. Handles and legs are changed to conform to incoming fashions. Pieces are cut down to fit new spaces. Often furniture in more than one part is separated through carelessness or inheritance. Bookcase tops become china cabinets and the bases become sideboards. Chair sets are divided, and multi-part tables broken up.
Drawer runners wear out through use. Things are freshened with a coat of paint, or stripped of original paintwork through ignorance. These things are faults that need some form of repair.
However, as the surface of the wood fades, oxidises and acquires minor dents and stains, the resulting richness of surface is much prized and called patination. The most dramatic aspect of patina, wood’s complexion, is derived from the waxing of the wood. As it absorbs the turpentine (tree, not mineral) the wood cells act the same way kitchen paper does with butter; it becomes increasingly translucent.
Good, rich even patina is much prized and can be the bulk of the dollar value of a piece. It follows that bad or inappropriate restoration can destroy something’s value, commercial and aesthetic.
Marks and signatures are commonplace on silver, pewter, ceramics and works of art, but seldom encountered on furniture. When makers’ or retailers’ marks are present they can confirm date or location of manufacture. Proof that a piece was made by a prestigious firm like Morant or Gillow adds considerable value, so fraudulent marks are not unknown. Ensure that the style, quality and age of the furniture are commensurate with the stamp or label.