As much as I admire the beauty and craftsmanship of antique furniture, I am first to admit that I have no technical knowledge on the subject, and would always enlist the services of an expert when procuring antique furnishings for a client.
One such expert is William Robinson of Loveday Antiques in London. William has very kindly agreed to share some of his vast knowledge in what to look out for when sourcing antique furniture.
Collecting antique furniture is a very satisfying occupation because it gives the collector fantastic works of art, a useful piece of beautiful furniture and a good investment. Collecting antique furniture is becoming more and more popular, so the collector needs to be alert to fakes and swindles.
The best advice given to beginner collectors is to buy what they like and will use. Buy the best piece that they can afford and always use reputable and experienced dealers. Antique furniture comes from countries around the world and from different time periods. It has been basically categorized as English, American, European and Chinese, but each of these has sub-classifications for both historic period and style.
The type of wood used to make the furniture has a significant effect on its value. Mahogany, oak, walnut and pine are the most common types of wood used. Wood that is less than 100 years old is not considered antique. Construction details and hardware are also important features that affect the value. Furniture that has had replacement panels installed or has had its hardware changed will have a reduced value.
Here are some tips for determining that a piece of furniture is truly an antique.
• Wood shrinks by about one eighth inch per foot. Old furniture will not have uniform measurements.
• Check carefully for hairline cracks and ripples in the surface which denote age.
• The underside of the piece should show warping and buckling of the wood.
• Antique furniture will have wood that has been discoloured in certain areas from exposure to sunlight. Under the hardware, the wood should have a great contrast in colour from the rest of the piece.
• Screws manufactured in the first half of the 19th century have flat, un-tapered heads.
• The piece should have signs of wear and tear such as grime in the cracks.
• If the piece has upholstery, look for holes where the upholstery has been changed, possibly several times in older pieces.
• Glass and mirrors should also not be level and smooth.
American colonial furniture was usually left untreated. When looking at cabinetry, open the drawers and see how the pieces are joined together. In the early 18th century one dovetail joint was used, but later in the 19th century several joints were used.
Some tricks forgers use to try to swindle beginner antique furniture collectors are:
• Put antique hardware on a new piece
• Repair broken down antiques with new wood
• Use a more modern style of dovetail joint when constructing a fake. New joints are narrow. Joints from the 1800s are up to three eights inch wide. Also, joints should not be too uniform, nor should they each be unique.
• Surfaces should not be uniform in texture, colouring or smoothness. This indicates the piece is new or refinished. Victorian and later as well as Biedermeier from Austria can be refinished without losing their value.
• Because changing the hardware may not lower the value of a European antique, forgers may not admit that changing the hardware of an American antique will lower the value. If the hardware has been changed, it is better to consult an expert.
Antique furniture collecting can be an expensive hobby, even though it is a good investment, if the pieces are good. Beginners should not attempt to purchase a piece that is very costly without consulting an expert. Over time, with more experience of seeing antique furniture, collectors will gain an eye for the real thing and be able to make considerable investments.
William Robinson is an antique enthusiast and spends much of his time researching historical periods and styles that interest him for use in modern interior design. He currently works for Loveday Antiques who are an antique dealer in London specialising in antique wooden furniture, Art Deco, modern paintings and sculptures.
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