Friday, June 3, 2011

When Is An Antique Fake?

In a few weeks I will be presenting my annual lecture at the University of California at Irvine, in association with senior ASA appraiser, Nancy Martin. We have done this for several years, and the goal is to assist aspiring appraisers in analyzing antiques for condition and authenticity.

I take a truck full of pieces and parts to point out details that make the forensics of furniture fraud into a practical science. Wood analysis, hardware evidence, style, form and function, historical periods and revivalism, popularity of fakes during different eras, and, most importantly, the tool marks left by the process of fabrication all must be considered when deciding how old something actually is.

The economics of fraud play an important factor in the popularity of fakes. If something takes a lot of work and skill to make, and the market does not support the value of the original then it is not likely someone will make a copy and try to pass it off as antique. On the other hand, anything which is made as a copy or a fake will, technically, become "antique" after a century of life.

This is one of the problems with the term "antique". Back in 1800, if you look in a dictionary from that period, "antique" refers to an object of great antiquity. In other words, Greek and Roman objects were considered "antique" to the leaders of the French and American revolutions. During the Victorian period, which lasted over 60 years, the revivalism of earlier styles and fashion changed the concept of antique to include objects made during the previous century.

This idea that something over 100 years old was antique was common, and allowed rich men like Frick, Hearst, Mellon, and their Robber Baron buddies to import tons of stuff from Europe tax free, claiming it was antique. I still think of my son, at the age of 8, standing at the front of the tour at Hearst castle, raising his hand to ask the guide a simple question: "My dad says there are no antiques here." Actually not a question, and certainly not the question I would have proposed. I spent the rest of the tour avoiding eye contact with him.

By 1930 the government stepped in and the Hawley-Smoot tariff act included a definition of antique as "made before 1830". This was intended to reflect the fact that pre-Victorian objects were generally made by hand, and had a higher value than those made later, during the Industrial Revolution. This definition is the one I grew up with.

In November, 1966, President Johnson signed a law which included a change in this definition, designed to reflect the antique dealer's lobbying efforts, and reinstated the 100 year old description. Overnight all the stuff made between 1830 and 1866 became valuable. Tiffany and Belter pieces which had been donated to thrift stores now commanded incredible prices.

More importantly, collectors could anticipate that investing in objects which will "mature" into antiques soon is possible, so people began looking at Stickley and Craftsman furniture as a good purchase.

At the same time, a fake made over 100 years ago is technically "antique" and that creates the problem. Unlike fake money, fake antiques are rarely if ever destroyed. They continue to live in the market place and confuse the consumer. So, "When is an Antique Fake?" has become the title of one of my most popular talks.

I post a picture of two candlestands. One is a fake, made in Italy, designed to look old. The second is a copy of that fake, made last week by a carver in my shop. I added the "patina" and color to match the first. So, we have two objects, a fake which is "antique" by age alone, and a copy which will be "antique" in 2111. Guaranteed.

Always keep your eyes open!


Anonymous said...

I am only posting here because I started at the beginning of your blog and read all entries.
I've only known of marquetry and veneer from an outsiders view and I am in awe of what I've seen. Beautiful beautiful work. Thank you for keeping this alive.
Having read all your posts, you mention and explain the Chevalet quite a bit. You also talk about the "Picking Machine" but you don't provide any more information about it. I have no idea what a Picking Machine is. Care to explain?
And again...Wow!

W. Patrick Edwards said...


I am pleased that you found my posts worth the time to read all the entries. I am also pleased that you asked me a direct question. I have been somewhat occupied over the past month and was waiting for inspiration to return to the keyboard.

Thus, I will take some pictures and explain the picking machine; one of the original Xerox machines!

shipwright said...

Good to see you back at the blog Patrick. I've missed you. Good write-up on the pricker. Is a modern printer / copier as accurate?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

There is an Adobe program, called Illustrator, which we have used. This program provides a design which is created by dotted lines, instead of a solid line. Actually, the students at ecole Boulle are using these types of programs now instead of the picking machines.

I much prefer the manual control of the traditional picking machine, since it allows for subtle variations that make the process look authentic.

It is important to understand why dots work and not solid lines. If you are trying to cut away exactly half the line during the piece by piece method, it is much easier to see that the dots are cut in half, instead of a solid line, which looks almost the same.

As to copiers, it is essential that all designs used for the piece by piece method are copied at the same time on the same copier. Each copier has slight variations in dimensions, depending on the machine and whether it is hot or cold, that change the copies. These changes are not noticeable to normal users, but for cutting accuracy, it is critical for success (or failure!)

Anonymous said...

Hello Mr Edwards,
I'm glad you started your blog again ! I saw the printing machines in Paris but I didn't notice it were dotted lines.I'm glad I know this now.Have you ever tried to press the designs?
Filip Tanghe ( Belgium)

shipwright said...

Thanks Patrick. My half line cutting is improving but I can really see how splitting dots may be easier to see. These are the kind things I'm hoping to gain from your class in Feb.

See you then.