Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
Avoiding Fraudulent Country Furniture
We've all been burned by furniture that looked old when the auctioneer sold it up but turned out to be brand spanking new when we picked it up after the auction. Here are some ways to avoid getting burned again.
Most important, adhere to the auction goer's Prime Directive: Don't buy without previewing! Then, when previewing...
- Smell the finish. If you get even a faint whiff of paint or varnish be suspicious!
- Touch and caress the wood. Does it feel smooth or rough? A piece used in the house will be smooth on all the visible surfaces. A piece made out of barn siding will show the coarseness resulting from exposure to many years of driven snow, rain, and dust.
- Lift the piece. Is it lighter than you expect? Old wood is lighter than it looks because it has dried out over many decades.
- Look at the piece. That seems obvious but many auction houses cram the furniture in so tight against each other that there is no way to see anything but the front and top. Do not assume it has four legs. If you can't see them, assume they aren't there. If the preview is laid out to prevent you from previewing, assume that it's because they don't want you to see the sides, etc.
- Is all the wood the same thickness? It should not be. Hand planed wood varies greatly in thickness. Modern lumber is very uniform 7/8ths inch thick in the early part of this century and 3/4 inch thick since the 1930s. Old lumber shows the irregularity of hand craftsmanship.
- Look at the finish. The early craftsmen where frugal folk. They didn't waste time or material applying finishes to surfaces that weren't going to show. The bottoms, sides, and backs of drawers; the inside and back of the case, etc. should not be finished. If they are, it was almost certainly done recently and it was probably done to conceal something. Even if it was done from innocent ignorance, it is an improper refinishing and seriously diminishes the pieces' value.
- Look at the grain and color. Study unfinished surfaces. If you can't find any it's probably because the maker doesn't want you to see the natural wood. Wood identification is difficult, even for long time professionals. But the Asiatic woods that are used for many of the fakes being peddled by unscrupulous auction houses have grains, textures, and colors that you will recognize as unusual.
- Don't be fooled by dirt and dust. The cheats apply it to the piece to create the illusion that it was in grandma's attic for 100 years and to help cover up any sloppy "fakesmanship" in the manufacturing.
- Is the wear logical? Does the wood and the finish show the effects of opening and shutting for 150 years? Do the drawer pulls show wear? Does the door latch show wear? Does the wood show wear in places where it rubs together? If the wear is wrong the piece is wrong...
- But, the counterfeiters are clever folk, or at least some of them are. The clever ones know well where the wear should be so they put it there as they manufacture their hoaxes. If you find wear, study it carefully. Does it show the smoothness of a century of rubbing fingers or the coarseness of three minutes of tearing away wood with a rasp. Use a magnifying glass if necessary.
- And, on the other hand, many defrauders are NOT such clever folk. Look for tool marks and construction techniques that are not consistent with the age. It's amazing how often fakes announce themselves through the power tools that made them.
- Are there extraneous holes in the wood? Why are they there? If you can't answer that, you're looking at wood that was previously used for something else. It has been "recycled" and used either to create a totally new item (from old wood) or to perform a heavy restoration or modification that severely damages the value. (But our forbearers never discarded anything with use left in it. Many a table top was replaced 100 years ago and the table is still a worthy antique.)
- Look at the nails and screws. Do they have wrought heads? Are they square nails. Are the slots in the screws off center? And especially, has a century of oxidizing discolored the wood surrounding the screw or nail? If the wood is clean, the nail hole is new and so is the furniture.
- And finally, after you've smelled it, caressed it, looked it up and down (and upside down), use your common sense. Does it all add up to a good piece or a fake? And do you need to take the chance?
And here's a sure test to add to that list. March right up to the auctioneer and ask how old the piece is. If he (or she) waffles or weasels, ask them point blank to guarantee the authenticity. If they won't, tell them you'll have to assume it's fake and that the rest of the stuff in the auction might be fake too so you'll have to be very cautious in your bidding.
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