There comes a time when any antiques aficionado grapples with some insecurity, the kind that comes with determining whether a piece is a legitimate antique or a clever reproduction. Forgers have become ever more adept at using aging agents and other techniques to make an item look like it is 100 years old — even if it was made yesterday.
Since dismantling a chair or a chest at a shop or a flea market to analyze its parts is not an option, some understanding of tools and techniques and the types of markings they leave behind is invaluable when trying to determine when a piece of furniture was made. A buyer needs not just in-depth knowledge of historical styles and construction techniques but powers of deduction worthy of a detective.
From pottery vases to Bakelite bangles, fakes abound in the flea-market fields. A lot of these fakes are mass produced and obvious to the avid collector, but there are a few surprisingly well-crafted exceptions. Many new sellers have no idea that they are serving up reproductions. Education is your best defense against getting taken
Be wary of the enticement of the obviously underpriced. Most buyers can delude themselves into thinking the “antique” is a steal, but, remember: when something is a steal, someone else is doing the stealing. Hence, it is always best to buy from a trusted and knowledgeable dealer or auction house.
The way furniture is put together is an important indicator of age. Early craftsmen used hand-cut, mortise-and-tenon joints, dovetail joints and wooden pegs. Found in the sides of drawers, cabinets and other pieces, dovetail joints have been employed in furniture making for centuries. Hand-cut dovetails are wider and cruder than dovetails made with machines. A machine-made dovetail means the furniture could be from 1860 on.
Since wood shrinks across the grain but not along it, very old furniture may appear misshapen. A tabletop or a chair leg that was round when it was made becomes slightly oval with age. Wooden pegs that jut out just a bit from the surface of a chair leg or a cabinet side are also indicators of age-related shrinkage. Shrinkage in a chair or chest leg creates a more oblong than round piece and calipers can help determine whether shrinkage has occurred. Calipers are one of the best tools that a wise antique buyer should.
Handmade antiques do not have uniform construction. Very small differences in size and shape will give this away. Irregularity is a good thing. Also, the real deal is often heavy. Old fencing was made of hefty iron, not the light aluminum used today. Garden benches were carved from stone rather than molded from resins. Solid wood weighs less than modern plywood.
Nails tell their own story. Blacksmiths forged square-cut nails individually in the 1700s. After shaping the nail, the blacksmith placed it in a heading tool and delivered several hammer blows to form the distinctive head. Cut nails were prominent from 1790 to 1890. Sharp-ended wire nails with flat, round heads began to be machine produced around 1880. Staples are hallmarks of late 20th-century manufacture. Although square nails and worm holes together in a piece of furniture would indicate an antique, somebody could build a new piece with old nails, or use old wood with new nails, so look carefully.
Another tell-tale sign of a reproduction is wood uniformity. It is unlikely that real antique furniture is made with the same type of wood throughout. Years ago, it didn’t make sense to use valuable wood in unseen places. Check the bottoms of chairs and drawers to look for different wood types. If the piece is made entirely from one kind of wood, it is probably a reproduction.
A maker’s mark is another way to authenticate an antique. For furniture, this could be a brand on the underside, a paper manufacturer’s label or a signature in chalk or ink in an inconspicuous place such as a drawer bottom. Back stamps are pressed into a piece of pottery, rather than printed on, indicating an older item that may date between 1850 and 1899. By the early 1900s, most back stamps were printed. Also, if the back stamp of your china item has no country of origin, it was likely made before 1891. If the item has no back stamp at all, it was also likely made before 1891. Red ware was frequently used over fires to prepare food, so look for some blackening on the bottom.
If you are still unsure, look inside the cabinet at the tooling marks. If everything inside the cabinet is smooth, it is probably not a very early piece, since sandpaper did not exist in the 18th century. Check that there are no “circular” machine marks, since circulating saws did not exist before the 1860s.
These are just a few of the most obvious signs to look for. But if you are an educated antique buyer and a piece “speaks to you” … enjoy it.
Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, a design consultant and a realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Virginia. Reach her at