If you’re interested in buying authentic period furniture, research is in order, whether it’s 18th or 19th century, modern or vintage. It is no longer a question of whether a piece is a reproduction, but at what period of reproduction. I don’t need to tell you that all eras of furniture have been and are continually reproduced. These days, reproductions can be expensive as well as collectible. A good example would be furniture made during the 1876 centennial that copies 18th century American furniture. It was well made and was seriously collected.
Many furniture makers these days specialize in making reproductions and label them correctly as reproductions. An example is the flip flop shown below. It’s offered honestly as a Victorian-style rocker made in the vintage 1960s era.
There are factors involved in assessing the authenticity of a piece of furniture. For example, you would need to know what should or should not be part of a carved knee on a chair or what the back of a so-called 18th century chest or cupboard should look like. First of all, it must be rough, made to stand against the wall.
Or, what if you spot a china or display case that, at first glance, appears to be in the late American Classical style, circa 1820? Scanning it from top to bottom, you might notice there are neo-classical inlays on the doors and heavy carved animal paw feet. However, the visible saw marks are semi-circular and the glass doors are curved. If you’ve done your research, you’ll recognize that this is a late Victorian and Renaissance Revival showcase. The saw marks and curved glass doors are clues.
Start with small pieces, like chairs and side tables. Study their construction and timbers. Give upholstered chairs and sofas a second look, especially when the upholstery is in poor condition. You’d be surprised how many times worn upholstery covers an 18th or 19th century chair at a yard sale.
Look at the legs and feet as they are carved. Even a beginner should be able to recognize the sharp carving characteristic of a quality old antique.
Don’t buy someone’s mistakes, like canapes cut from big canapes or stripped and refinished. Beware of candle holders made from folding screens or butterfly tables that were once just tavern tables. Other problematic pieces are often furniture with painted or stenciled decorations and fancy inlays.
For many years old painted plank bottom chairs could be had for $25 or less. In the 1970s, early 19th century painted furniture became a trend. Naturally, there weren’t enough painted versions for everyone. Out of this came the stencil, paint and artificial aging kits.
When veneer, carving, and inlays are newly added, your research will pay off. Only by knowing the thickness and signs of normal wear can you judge the fake tread. Look for signs of artificial coloring around the edges of the sculpture.
Examine the furniture for the first marks of tools and saws. Beware of a trunk that has new moldings at the joints. It may have started life as a chest-to-chest piece. Now only the background exists.
If possible, when paying a high price, have the seller certify the part, detailing the date of manufacture, description, and any known restorations.
If you get stuck, put it up for auction, mentioning it as “unknown age”. There’s always someone who knows less than you did when you bought it.