As time goes on and the prices on antiques continually advance, the whole subject of fraudulent and "fake" furniture becomes of increasing importance and certainly of great moment to the amateur whose knowledge and experience do not qualify him to distinguish with certainty the genuine from the fraudulent.
If a piece is unfinished and "in the rough" we may much more easily judge it. In a genuine piece "in the rough" there is a consistency of color, both on the inner and outer surfaces, that speaks for itself. If any additions have been made, such as feet, drawers, or tops, and these additions have been stained or painted in attempted conformance with the old surfaces, these new parts may usually be located by careful examination and inspection of surfaces.
When we consider pieces that have been restored, cleaned off, and refinished, the amateur is likely to find it much more difficult to locate new parts, as all these processes tend to cover up any additions or repairs and to blend the new with the old.
The expert in examining refinished furniture can by a careful inspection find every addition or repair—but this ability is only acquired through years of experience, and I have found that this ability to tell the new from the old is usually found in someone whose experience has been gained in personally dissecting and repairing old furniture. There are old professional restorers and refinishers who have developed the power to such a point that they will merely give a casual glance at a refinished Windsor chair and remark, "Yes, nice chair, but it has one new leg and stretcher, and two new spindles"—and the opinion will be quite true. Any piece newly constructed entirely of old materials would be unworthy of even their comment unless it might possibly elicit a contemptuous grunt. These "old-timers" are probably our best judges as to authenticity and some collectors doubting their own knowledge will buy no important piece of furniture until its worth and genuineness has been verified by one of these men.
It has often been stated that the most gullible persons in furniture-collecting circles are the wealthy collectors who depend entirely on their own knowledge, and who, at the same time, have had no personal experience of any sort in dissecting, restoring, or working about old furniture.
The flair for discerning the genuine in old furniture does not exclusively dwell with the educated. I have seen this flair very well developed in ignorant and unlettered secondhand dealers. The mysterious manner in which some of these quite uneducated men can recognize beauty, age, and fineness, not only in furniture but in all sorts of ancient objects, is almost uncanny. They know antiques, not by periods, names, or dates, but by the objects' own beauty and worth and evidences of age.
There seems to be a widely extended feeling at present, particularly with the newer collectors, that there is hardly any genuine antique furniture available; that almost all the furniture shown in the antique shops is fraudulent and faked; that the country is full of stately old homes, the attics of which are crammed with fake pieces planted by dealers to be sold to the unsuspecting. In fact, some amateurs who have started to collect antique furniture become so nervous and frightened over the ever-present bogy of fakes that they hardly dare buy anything. Conditions do not warrant any such state of fear. It is quite true that there is plenty of faking and many fraudulent pieces are offered for sale. However, much of the dishonest work is so badly done and so very apparently new that it should deceive no one. It is strange but true that, having produced a fairly convincing fake, the faker seldom has the nerve to ask a price which would be right for a genuine piece. If an entirely original butterfly table is worth a thousand dollars, the faker places a price of two or three hundred dollars on his fraudulent butterfly, thereby proclaiming to the wise that something is wrong and that caution is necessary. We should very carefully scrutinize any pieces of the finer types of furniture which are offered to us at extremely low prices.
The location in which we find our furniture should in a manner influence our feeling about authenticity. If an old friend offers to sell us some of his family treasures, we are naturally not so very suspicious: while if we are delving in the stock of a dealer whose record is not too clean, we would examine with extreme care any possible purchase.
It is true that fraudulent furniture is sometimes "planted" in farmhouses and secondhand shops in the hope that the environment and the excitement of unexpected discovery will bring about a quick purchase without a thorough examination. It is also true that unscrupulous dealers will sometimes buy the contents of an old home in the country, and mix in with the genuine a few truckloads of trash and fakes. Thus the stage is set for an auction sale of the entire contents of the famous old so-and-so manrion. This method of crookedness does not usually work out well, because there are too many persons who know the details of the crooked plans. Gossip travels quickly by word of mouth and often by the time the auctioneer mounts his block the entire audience knows that it is attending what is known as a "phony auction."
To comment on the more agreeable side of the subject, there is still a very large quantity of antique furniture for sale in the shops which is quite genuine, authentic, and right in every way. It is simply a matter of becoming enough of an expert to distinguish the false from the true. The amateur must do the best he can with his available knowledge and not be heartbroken if he is occasionally "stung" with some piece that is not right. This may happen even to an experienced collector, but, if it does, he seldom says very much about the occurrence. It has been remarked that the usual procedure in such cases is to sell the offending piece in the evening to some less experienced and possibly myopic collecting friend; but this was probably the remark of some hardened and dyspeptic cynic.
fraudulent furniture made entirely of new woods
It is quite a common occurrence to come across pieces of a valuable type, such as highboys, lowboys, butterfly tables, fine Windsor chairs, or desks, which have been made within the last twenty years. These pieces have sometimes been stained and painted, then cleaned off in exactly the same manner as if genuine. If such a piece has been but recently completed and has had no actual use, the lack of wear and the texture and color of the new wood both inside and out will usually loudly proclaim the truth. However, if the piece was a properly constructed maple lowboy made and treated twenty years ago and since subjected to the use and wear of a home, it is not always easy to judge its age. Butterfly tables have been much reproduced in the last twenty years and in some cases hard use has brought these reproductions to a very fair imitation of antiquity. I once had the experience of being offered in a home a pair of butterfly tables. They were frauds, rather well done but the offer of a pair of butterfly tables at eighty-five dollars each at once aroused my suspicions. Butterfly tables do not come to us often in pairs or flocks and at eighty-five dollars each. There are, these days, all sorts of good reproductions on the market, but made and sold as reproductions and with no intention to deceive. These reproductions are of course made of new wood, but every item of the old construction is followed. Mortice-and-tenon joints, pins, dovetails, and the stylistic details are fairly correct. Sometimes these pieces become in the hands of the unscrupulous the basis for dishonest work of various sorts. They may be scratched, marred, and pounded with different tools, then painted with a thin red cold-water paint. They may next be put out in the weather for a season, where the sun and rain will age them and bring a spurious appearance of antiquity. I have heard of one faker who buried new Windsor chairs in the deep muck of a swamp for a summer, thereby giving them quite a pleasing color of mellow age. I have heard of several fakers who, in specially constructed smokehouses, treated their new furniture to just the desired shade of brownness. However, the strong hamlike odor of furniture so treated should prevent our considering its purchase.
Very strong tea, coffee, and infusions of oak and butternut bark are sometimes used in the attempted changing of new woods into old. Strong lye mixed with mud is sometimes daubed over a piece of reproduction furniture and left for a time to burn and discolor it. It is probably true that the faker finds his best field in the smaller objects. It is much easier to produce a "fake" p;pe box or stick-leg candle-stand, than to bring forth a plausible six-leg highboy either of old or new woods. The candlestand is small and simple; while the highboy is complex, requiring all sorts of care about details of construction, wear on drawers and drawer runs, and, after all these are arranged, the faker must attempt to bring all the inner and outer surfaces to a smooth and uniform color and appearance of antiquity. Such faking may be, and is, attempted, but not with great success. We hear a great deal about the wonderful cleverness of furniture-fakers, yet it is my firm opinion that there is no faker living who can produce a fraudulent six-leg highboy that will for a moment deceive any one of our well-known American experts.
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ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.