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Some Hints for Detecting Fake Antique Furniture

By Silas Finch

A skill anyone hoping to become a serious antique collector must develop is the ability to detect fakes. Antiques have been big business for many years and anywhere that substantial amounts of money are changing hands there is sure to be the dishonest looking to take advantage of the inexperienced.

Before buying any relatively expensive antique the purchaser should make every effort to determine whether it is genuine or not. It isn't always easy and sometimes simply impossible but even if a piece turns out to be a fake youíll at least feel better that you tried and doff your hat in respect to the faker.

A surprisingly good way to detect fakes in Early American and Victorian furniture is examining the wood used to construct it. Frequently the wooden panels used to make furniture in the past were thicker than those used in more modern times- the older the furniture, the thicker the panels. The reason for this is simple. As we settled the country we cut down trees to make house, fences, and furniture. We tended to cut down the biggest trees first and, of course, trees grow very slow as a rule. The result being that over time the average diameter of a tree cut for lumber become smaller.

It is not unusual to see an early nineteenth century chest of drawer with back panels that are over twenty inches wide. I have rested my carcass on chairs built in the 1750s thatís seat was a single piece over twenty-three inches wide and 2.5 inches thick. Today, American trees of a size capable of producing a cross section that substantial are rare indeed.

Any board that is over 1.25 inches thick is almost certainly over 125 years old. Modern boards are nearly always cut to less than an inch thick. Keep in mind that just because a board is less than an inch thick doesnít mean it is modern. Old wood panels might be thin but modern ones are rarely very thick.

While checking the boards for thickness you also take a look at the machining marks. When boards were cut and furniture made by hand the finished products were not as level, smooth, or even as they are today. Even pieces that appear perfectly smooth will reveal trails and ridges left by hand tools when held obliquely to a good light source. Slower turning lathes used by furniture makers in the past left chisel marks and other minor imperfections. Look most closely into narrowest parts of the turned piece for signs of hand lathing.

Just as we have a common misconception that the marble statues and buildings of antiquity were the polished white we see in museums when in fact they were covered with often garish paint jobs that have worn away over time we also believe that all antique furniture was originally varnished and its natural wood beauty glorified. In the case of American country furniture nothing could be further from the truth. Our furniture making fore parents liked color and generally painted their furniture. Serious collectors know that a genuine piece complete with original paint is far more valuable than one without. Even the tiniest traces of original paint can improve the value of an antique.

Any trace of old paint on an antique is a good sign that it is genuine, fakers rarely go to the trouble of adding minutes traces of paint to the bottom of chairs. However it has been done, so one way to protect yourself from this kind of faking is to examine a crack or ding in the pieceís surface. When manufactured furniture was generally free of cracks or other signs of wear, so any paint found in a crack or other mar was surely added later.

One of my favorite tricks performed by furniture fakers is the rather nasty, if ingenious, touch of adding artificial wormholes. Unlike drill bits insects do not bore straight holes into wood. They curve and turn in directions determined only by the appetite the creature making them. A thin stiff bit of wire, such as a bread tie, can be used to determine if a tiny creature or a fraud is responsible for an apparent wormhole.

Posted on January11th, 2007

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. She can be reached at silas@collectibleantiquesetc.com.