Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
The Hoax of Embellishment
embellishment (em-bel'-ish...ment) n. 1. an ornament or decoration. 2. a fictitious addition, as to a factual statement.
One of the most common frauds in the antiques business is the embellishment of legitimate antiques to make them seem more than they are. This particular hoax comes in almost every variation you can imagine. Here are a few examples we've encountered recently.
- We were once offered a nice old 6 board trunk with a very impressive carving of the Pennsylvania state seal on the front panel. The seller wanted $300 and insisted that it was a great old 19th century folk art chest worth thousands of dollars. Well, maybe... But we were awfully suspicious. What an easy thing for a faker to do. The carving was quite shallow, the edges of the carving seemed too crisp and fresh, and the coloring was too bright. You'll sometimes find carving applied to almost any type of old furniture.
- A similar scam occurs when an old piece is painted with floral decorations or folk art type images. A tray might have a scene painted on it or a cupboard might have a scene painted on the doors. This was a very popular way, in the 1930s, to spiff up old furniture. If that's what was done, it's legitimate folk art. If the decoration is new, it should be signed and dated by the artist and it should say so on the tag. The problem occurs when the buyer is led to pay a premium for "old folk art."
- Folk art is one of the most easily faked fields in collecting. Lack of skill on the part of the faker can be interpreted as evidence of the amateur status of the folk artist. Each piece of folk art is unique so it can't be compared with authentic items. Collecting folk art requires a great "feel" for the medium and a great sense of techniques, tools, colors, etc.
- Drop leaf tables are very popular. Of course, different styles have different values. For instance a table with nice rounded corners on the drop leaf is worth more than a table with a plain square corner. What a simple thing it is to take a table with square corners and convert them to rounded corners! To avoid this particular scam, check carefully the cuts on the table. If the shyster is careless, you may find very parallel bandsaw marks. If more devious, you'll find irregular hand cut coping saw marks. The best test will be to very carefully study the wear, patina, and finish on the rounded edges and compare them to the long straight edges. If they don't match, it's an embellished table.
- Elsewhere, we mentioned warehouse finds. Among the common "finds" are labels that are about the right size for a bottle. Beware of old bottles with new labels. If the label doesn't exactly fit the shape and purpose of the bottle, it's a fake.
- Here's a label variation we just heard about. Jar lids with great graphics have been color photocopied. The copy is then cut out and pasted to a plain jar lid. The entire thing is sealed with varnish. Casual inspection (such as at auction or on eBay) won't reveal the fakery. Since most of the value of these 20th century jars is in the graphics on the lid or label, a fake lid makes the item worthless.
- Beware of old telephones. Authentic old phones are worth many hundreds of dollars. They won't work on modern phone systems however. Over the years, many old phones have been converted by removing the innards and replacing them with modern parts. If that's been done, what you're buying is an old oak case and a new phone. It's worth only a little more than what the phone is worth. If you're buying an old phone, be sure to check for modifications.
- There are reports of pieces of Westmoreland glass being hand painted with decorations to increase their value. Many Westmoreland pieces were factory painted and those tend to be worth considerably more than the unpainted versions. It's a simple matter to buy the unpainted piece, paint it to match the more expensive variety and turn a tidy profit. Apparently, some of the people who were the actual painters at the Westmoreland factory before it closed are engaged in this profitable scam. That's one of the risks of modern collectibles.
- Woodcut engravings and lithographs from the 19th century can be very beautiful. There are countless numbers available. In most cases these were issued in black and white. Color had to be laboriously applied with water colors by hand. Currier and Ives is one publisher which issued its prints in both colored and black and white versions. Most prints seem to have been issued in colors. William Bartlett, the marvelous illustrator of early 19th century America (and the whole world) issued most of his prints in black and white. (In fact, we don't know that he issued any hand colored versions.) For many years, people have been taking 19th century black and white print and hand coloring them. Today, most Bartlett's are found with color. Very few C&I prints can be found in black and white. It is very commonly done today and is very difficult to detect. We once bought a box lot of old prints and found, among the detritus, many failed practice attempts at hand coloring. One way to suspect recent coloring is to look at the accuracy of the coloring. The early colorists were in a hurry and could make some glaring errors. The modern faker is much more careful and will show more accuracy and less errors along edges, etc. Recently, we had two copies of the same Bartlett print in the Shop. Both were colored but obviously not by the same person and not at the same time. The colors were different. The detail on one was much sloppier. Any print which has been hand-colored recently has been embellished and its "antiques value" has been seriously diminished. On the other hand, if it's well done, the print's decorative value has been greatly enhanced. Maybe it's a wash, but honesty dictates that the recent embellishment be noted on the print.
- A fellow was in the shop the other day asking about color photocopies of prints. He wanted to buy a $250 print, but he wasn't sure it was authentic. The frame and matting appeared old but there was new paper on the back of the frame. Was this a new print embellished with an old frame? Or is in an old print embellished with a nicer old frame? Or did someone simply take it apart and clean it? (Which is an embellishment we wish we saw a lot more often.) The owner refused to open the back of the frame or guarantee the print. We told our friend that if the seller won't open it up so the questions can be answered, we'd pass on it.
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