Coxsackie Antique Center

Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

Three Keys to Authenticating Old Furniture

There are three almost certain ways to be sure you have an old piece of furniture.

Patina is the color and surface characteristics that items acquire as they age. It is cause by chemical reactions between the wood, the air around it, and light. The more exposed to the air and light, the darker the coloration. The type of chemicals in the air also affect color. Furniture sitting in the kitchen with the wood stove will show more darkening than would the same piece in the parlor closed off except for occasional family gatherings. The wood forming the back of the piece will show less coloration when viewed from inside the case than does the same piece of wood viewed from outside the piece on the back. The sides of drawers closer to the front will show more coloration than the ends toward the back that get pulled out less often. So study the patina. Does it show the patterns of coloration you would expect? If the patina is wrong, be very suspicious of the piece. It is virtually impossible to duplicate the effects of age on wood surfaces. Stains can approximate the color but are obviously applied. Smoking and burning and soaking in salt water or burying it in the manure heap for six months all leave discoloration (as you can imagine) but the patterns of coloration are wrong.

Shrinkage is an inexorable process as wood ages over decades. Wood shrinks very little along the length of the grain. It shrinks considerably more across the grain. And there are slight differences in the shrinkage across the grain from front to back and from side to side. Therefore, on a turned piece, such as a chair leg or spindle, the perfect roundness that existed when the piece was turned gradually shrinks to an oval shape. Normally, the shrinkage is insufficient to be seen by eye, but with a caliper, it can be measured. For instance, a chair post might be 42 mm along one axis (side to side) but only 40 mm along another one (front to back). It is virtually impossible to imitate this shrinkage.

Oxidation Around Metal Fasteners occurs when nails, screws, snare hinges, etc., are driven into wood. The metal begins to react with the wood and moisture, leaving a dark staining around the piece of metal. This staining is very difficult to fake. Even if there is an old nail in old wood, if there is no darkening, it is a new hole.

Never say never, so we won't say it's impossible to fake these three attributes, but it is such a slow, time consuming task that the economics prevent it from being done. The value of a piece would have to be many thousands of dollars to pay for the time involved - and a piece that valuable would be subjected to other even more elaborate tests such as x-raying, wood analysis etc.

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