Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
A few months ago a customer was wandering around in the Center looking for a table. We had a beautiful 1840s drop leaf table with wonderfully ornate carvings and rope twist legs. We pointed it out to our customer. His eyes brightened, he started walking toward it with enthusiasm, then stopped in his tracks. "Oh" he said. "....That's European. ....I want an American Table." Well, we don't know whether it was or it wasn't, but we do know that the mere possibility was enough to kill the sale.
Our first reaction was one of silent annoyance at his parochial chauvinism, but once the pain of a lost sale had receded, we had to admit that the desire for American Antiques is an important and reasonable criteria to use in collecting..
One of the great appeals of antiques is that they help us understand our roots and our history. Antiques open up for us the daily lives of our ancestors. They demonstrate the industry, efficiency,creativity, and skilled craftsmanship of our forefathers.
An antique table is so much more than a flat surface to pile things on. Study its construction, its craftsmanship, its materials, the fine proportion of the design and decoration. Every element of the table bears witness to our heritage.
The wide boards of the top reveal an elaborate tale of a by-gone American. We know the table is old because the boards are wide - perhaps 24", even 36" wide. We have no more trees large enough and old enough to yield such boards. The Wilderness which once blanketed the continent with gargantuan forests, is gone The testimony of the table makes environmentalist of us all.
We run our hands across the table's surface and again across the underside, feeling the craftsmanship of the builder. We can follow the faintly cupped rows that trace the exact pathways of the craftsman as he strained to shape the wood to his needs.
Notice the economy and efficiency of the builder. The top is as smooth as glass. The bottom is cupped and rough, even with evidence of the pit saw still on the bottom of the table top. The top is the deep golden sheen of many layers of meticulously prepared and applied finish. The bottom is raw and unfinished. The ancient craftsman knew well the cost of wasted motion, wasted material, wasted time. Where the finish showed, where it mattered, he spared no effort to do it right and complete. Where the surface was hidden, where it would not be seen, he wasted no time in applying a finish or smoothing the surface.
If the top is held onto the frame by screws, notice that some of the slots in the screw heads are off center, testifying to the laborious hand filing that manufactured them. Careful cross examination of the carvings will reveal a clear picture of the carver, bent over the leg carefully marking and measuring to produce a near perfect rope twist or acanthus leaf.
The wood of the table testifies to the vast economy of the new country for there were no forests of Mahogany anywhere in the great and immense land, yet here it is, the wood of choice for much of the finest furniture. Great sailing ships journeyed into the Caribbean to bring the rough sawn boards back to our coastal cities. From there, the boards made there way up the great rivers to frontier cities like Albany. Or perhaps the wood is black walnut, a beautiful wood of the past. It has its own important story to tell. There is no more Black Walnut furniture because there are no more Black Walnut trees. They have gone the way of the old growth forests and add their voices to the plea for preserving our remaining resources.
So the table tells us a tale of the social and economic conditions of its origins. It reveals the complexities and skills of the craftsmen and of the society in which they worked.
Now if the table is French or German or English, it testifies in that vernacular. The table is not inferior; it is merely out of place. Where the American table testifies to the frugality and economy of the American artisan, the French piece will testify to the profligacy and ostentation of the Old Regime. In our American home, surrounded by American craftsmanship, it's story will not ring true.
The problem is much compounded when the piece is in the home under false colors, sold as an American piece by a less than knowledgeable or less than scrupulous dealer. Then, it's witness is not merely irrelevant; it is false.
American collectors have always preferred American antiques. They're willing to pay a premium for a strong example of early Americana.
Most recent fakes are fairly easy to identify. Many of these European pieces are not fakes. They were often brought back to this country as trophies by the wealthy entrepreneurs of the late 19th century. Such pieces are, in every way, authentic and worthy; they're just not American.
Determining the origin of pieces is an arcane art requiring years of apprenticeship. We confess ourselves to be ill equipped to accomplish the task and believe that most antique dealers are equally unprepared for the challenge. None of the "rules of thumb" that's we've encountered have proven useful or reliable, the exceptions seeming to be more plentiful that the conformists. This disparity in value and the difficulty of identifying foreign antiques has creates a fertile ground for the shysters to move in and exploit the unwary.
"New container ships arriving weekly" scream the ads in many of the antiques magazines. Every day, dozens of cargo ships loaded with Asian and European merchandise targeted at American antiques collectors arrive in our ports.
These "container antiques" are a serious problem for many reasons:
We recently visited an "Antique Center" in Norfolk VA and were astonished at the number of beautiful Armoires and pitcher and bowl dresser sets they had on display. We didn't figure it out until we saw a small sign on a door that said something like "Norfolk Antiques Importers, wholesale only." These items resembled turn of the century American antiques but they were actually post WWII (1950s) items from Europe. Indoor plumbing is a late development in much of Europe. Therefore, dresser bowl and pitcher sets were common until very recently. Many European houses were built without closets. Therefore, Wardrobes and Armoires were and still are widely used. These are not European antiques; they are European used furniture. Old wood is common in Europe and is being used to produce furniture using old designs and techniques. It is pure fakery. Enamelware is still common. So is tinware. But it is being shipped into the United States in vast quantities and sold through shops and auctions as antiques.
An even bigger problem is the container ships full of deliberate fakes being brought in from countries like China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel, Romania, the Czech Republic and many others. Cheating the Americans is great sport and very profitable in these countries. Conclusion
Everyone can decide for themselves what types of furniture they want in their homes. Many people may not care to listen to the testimony of the antique. For them, an attractive art nouveau Armoire may be enough. But even they should know what they are buying, and they should not be paying a "turn of the century American antique' price for a 1950s piece of French used furniture.
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