Monday, June 3, 2013

Is It Real?

"Marquetry?" Card Table ©Antique Refinishers, Inc.

The history of furniture design includes a maze of objects in form and decoration, function and style.  The study of this field in the Decorative Arts has been exciting and rewarding, and has taken me to thousands of homes, and hundreds of museums and galleries around America and Europe.

As a professional pastime, this endless search for understanding the culture of the past has given me a unique perspective on the "business" of collecting and dealing antiques.  Therefore, my analysis of what an object is and when it was made is more rapid and accurate than the casual observer, as that is the focus of my interest.  The general public looks at a piece of furniture and sees the "image" that suffices to provide enough information for them to make a general conclusion.  They don't take the time to examine the details closely or to look at the piece from different angles or in a different light.

I know this is true, since I have talked over the phone with clients who try to describe their furniture.  Usually it goes like this:  "What style is it?" I ask.  "It's old, but I don't know how old." is the response. "What wood is it?" my second question.  "Not sure.  (pause) Dark wood." they say slowly.  "Is the wood red, brown or yellow?" I ask, trying to determine if it is mahogany, walnut or oak.  "What do the feet look like?" I ask.  At this point they usually put down the phone and go look at the feet, even though they have lived with this piece since their grandmother left it to them 50 years ago.

An absolute truth in the antique business is that you never know exactly what a client has from their description.  Only a photo will tell you.  That is why I love the internet.  I can tell them to just email me a photo and we will go from there.  It is amazing how often the photo has nothing in common with their understanding of what they thought they had.

Of course, there are fakes and reproductions of genuine antiques which make up a fair amount of the business, and telling the difference is not always easy.  Good professional fakes can fool the experts, and make the business of appraisal and authentication challenging.  Reproductions are another matter.  They usually are easy to spot with simple examination.  Normally reproductions are made with modern materials or methods which were not available during the original period.  Plywood, MDF, Phillips screws, plastic elements, and other 20th century materials are obvious.

I had a client show up with a Louis XV bureau plat in the back of a pick up truck.  Over the phone, the description was fairly accurate: cabriole legs, marquetry surface, gilt leather top, ormolu mounts, etc.  As I walked out the front door of the shop and saw the truck parked down the street, I immediately asked, "Did you buy this from a catalogue?"  "Yes, how did you know?" was the surprised response, as we walked closer to the desk.  "Because it was made in China.  I bet you paid less than $500."

Look Closer!

I then proceeded to show the problems with the plastic marquetry, fake leather, bad "ormolu" and structural defects which were filled with epoxy.  I could see the expression of the client change and I felt sorry for him.  He thought he had a wonderful bargain, but when I told him it was not worth repairing, he left disappointed.  In this case, he got what he paid for.

Look Closer!

Recently two pieces showed up in the shop which illustrate this situation.  The first is an Italian game table, made early in the 20th century.  The owner had purchased it 20 years ago in an antique shop and it was damaged during a move, as the movers broke all the legs off.  Stupid movers.  Can't even move a card table without breaking the legs.  As soon as she set it down, I informed her that the "marquetry" was painted.  Again, the familiar expression change.  I wish I was not always the person with the bad news.

See the Difference?

The table does have veneer, at least.  However, all the central decoration is painted with a process that represents the traditional marquetry designs using paint and stains.  The "ebony" panel is a single piece of light wood, onto which is drawn the design with black ink.  Inside the ink design stains are used to make the different elements attractive.  Outside the ink lines the light wood is painted black.  It is not easy and reminds me of a similar process used in decorating ceramics.

Poor Quality Mount

The usual indicator of quality is in the mounts.  Cheap copies of mounts are often cast and left rough.  Higher quality copies have bronze mounts which are cleaned up and often gilt.  Original period mounts are spectacular, and should be closely studied in museums, where most of them are these days.  By the way, the English speaking collectors call these mounts "ormolu" which is a term not used these days by the French.  "Ormolu" is derived from the old  French term ("or moulu") which mean "ground gold."  The accurate term used in France is "bronze doré."

"Boulle" Stand ©Antique Refinishers, Inc.

Another piece which came in about the same time is this little "Boulle" stand.  The condition is bad, as is most Boulle, with elements lifting and pieces missing.  However, the "tortoise shell" on this piece is plastic, like you find on guitars.  The case is made of MDF.  The mounts are basic and crude.  The brass is extremely thin and there is no engraving at all.  The finish is catalyzed lacquer.  I informed the owner that it would cost much more than the piece is worth to repair it.  Sad story.

Plastic Tortoiseshell
I have the obsessive desire to save everything.  That is why I am in this business.  However, according to Darwin, it is the survival of the fittest.  In the case of furniture, perhaps it is best that some of these creations simply fall apart and are left behind.  It still makes me sad.

Beyond Repair Unfortunately


Traian Gherga said...

Your posts simply make my day... one of my first tasks when I started restoring furniture, was a cofee table, veneer on MDF, polyester finish... it had som scratches and the finish had whitened because of some hot water spoiled I guess... I had to clean it... with a scraper...for about 5-6 hours.

After that, I french polished it... I am sorry for that even now... because I wasted my time... these "meubles" are not meant to be restored...

Linas Kojelis said...

Excellent article. I have the fortune of collecting a not-so-popular period -- American Renaissance Revival. I think I'm good at picking out fakes (wrong proportions, wrong decorations, etc.), but in sum, there simply aren't too many fakes because the style itself is not popular. Still, sometime soon I need to take a full course in identifying fake "antiques."

W. Patrick Edwards said...

These comments reflect exactly what I had in mind with this post. There is a lot of material available on the good and great pieces of furniture, but it is hard to find information about poor quality furniture which makes up a large segment of the market.

I will look into my lecture material and post something from my favorite lecture, "When is a Fake Antique?" I have given this talk dozens of times and it always gets a good reception.

The point of that talk is that fakes (and poor reproductions) are not generally destroyed when they are discovered. Unlike counterfeit money, which is automatically destroyed by law, fakes are not.

Therefore, fakes continue to populate the market, and eventually become 100 years old. At that point, they legally become "antique."

If fakes were destroyed when discovered, it would raise the value of quality period objects significantly, but the market forces do not support this, since the business of "antiques" relies heavily on inventory which is "miss represented."

As they say, "Buyer Beware!"

JC said...

Wow, this post was pretty eye-opening. From a distance the card table looks like the real thing, but up close, it's pretty easy to tell that the marquetry top is just painted. It's still a beautiful piece as-is, but only if the price was right.

The "Boulle" table/chest also could have fooled me. Someone still went through a lot of work on that piece, which just makes you wonder what happened to it. Why would you have such a beautiful/ornate piece of furniture like this so badly stored that it got completely ruined?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I have concluded that the general population is completely ignorant of the existence of raw organic materials, like wood, ivory, tortoise shell, to name a few. The generation today grew up with plastic and synthetic substitutes for these materials, and grew to expect that they were indestructible.

I remember the first true "Woodies" which were amazing cars, built by hand out of ash or other hardwoods. Then in the early 60's Ford and other makers put "wood" laminate on the sides of their station wagons to attract buyers. It proved a failure as the weather quickly turned this "wood" to dust.

Improvements in technology have made it possible to make any material you can think of, and it is impossible for the average user to tell the difference. Think of the advances in Formica, for example.

Same with finishes. Modern catalyzed lacquer presents a finish which is perfectly clear and smooth and resists all types of heat and chemicals. (I should point out that it is not actually "indestructible" or "lasts forever.").

I still remember the call from a frantic young man who was renting a house furnished with real old furniture. He had ordered a pizza and, when it was delivered, put the box on the table while he ate it. When he was finished eating, he discovered the pizza box had become "one" with the table. It never occurred to him that placing a hot moist pizza box directly on an old finish would damage the wood.

He had to pay for that learning experience.