How to Authenticate Victorian Case Furniture Antiques

As an auctioneer, I’m often asked how do you tell if something is old?

What does the term period as it pertains to antiques?

How do I spot a fake or a reproduction?

I hope this article will clear a few things up on those issues?

What is the single thing I can do or buy that will make me the most money as a part time antiquer?

The answer to that question is the very last sentence in this article.

Period antiques: There’s sometimes a lot of confusion about the term PERIOD when it comes to antiques and there shouldn’t be because the term has a very clear cut meaning. The term period simply means the original era an antique was originally made throughout.

Let’s take for example the Gothic Period which originated in the 12th Century and lasted throughout the 16th. So that span in History would be the actual Gothic Period.

But the Gothic Style, like so many styles throughout history was copied many times after, so a Gothic styled piece of furniture from the 1800s can be an antique, because the technical definition of an antique is anything over 100 years old, but that item cannot be a period piece. To sum up: All period items are antiques, but not all antiques are period items.

Antiques that are copies of early periods are often referred to as “revival” or in the style of etc.

The dollar value of a period piece will be many times more than it’s revivalist cousins.

Often people will see something on the antiques roadshow and mistakenly say something like, “I have one of those, I never realized it was worth $15,000 dollars!” They think that the antique Chippendale Style chest of drawers they have is the same as the actual Chippendale Period Piece. After all theirs is an antique, it’s been in the family for over 100 years.

It’s tough sometimes when I have to tell them that what they have is certainly worth having, but it’s really only worth about $300 dollars in a strong market. If the person I’m relaying this information to is a prospective client, I’d better use some tact if I want to get the estate consignment.

Bringing people around on the real value of what they have is a big part of an auctioneers job and often very difficult, especially when expectations are dashed and the value is much less than they originally thought. To be honest, some folks who just won’t hear you out will often call in 2 or 3 auctioneers before they believe it.

Of course, the other side of that coin is the estate executor that thinks they were assigned to liquidate a house full of junk and it’s my delight to inform them that they’re actually in charge of a small fortune in antiques.(But somehow these folks aren’t as hard to convince, and usually need only one auctioneer to tell them that. It’s a true pleasure if that auctioneer is me! OK, well let’s get this train back on track because this segment is supposed to deal with authenticating antiques. We went over the difference between a period antique and a antique, but in most cases what the average person wants to know, at least at first, is, is that the item in question really old or is it a reproduction, a fake, or a fantasy piece.

Was it made 100 years ago, or last week. While the answer to that may seem obvious, there are some pretty talented people out there churning out new antiques. Before we get into the detective work of finding out whether something is old or not. Let’s look at the categories above because they are not all equal, here are the differences.

A fake: A fake can fall into a few different categories, it can be a legitimate reproduction, that someone has taken the identifying marks off of to try to pass it off as old. It can be something that was manufactured with the intent of deceiving the buyer. It can be an old item that has been altered.

A reproduction: A reproduction is something that was made to look as close to the original as possible, but is signed or otherwise marked to let the buyer know that it is not old. It’s not very high on the scale of collectiblity, but its several notches above a fake, and when the original isn’t obtainable, it’s a nice alternative.

A Fantasy Piece: A fantasy piece is something that is made to look old, but that actual item never really existed. Let’s say for example a Coca-Cola tray of which never saw production originally, but was made in the 1980s with the surface adorning a flapper models. Coke has many legitimate licensed fantasy items and they’re marked with the date of manufacture.

All of 3 of these exist in almost every category of antiques, from furniture to jewelry, which brings us to the feature of this show… authenticating what you have. Authenticating an antique is very much detective work. When you have the piece in front of you there is just no better way to find out whether or not it’s old than to use the simple but powerful skills of observation.

Let’s begin with case furniture. That being any type of furniture that has a case or a box type main structure. Dressers, blanket chests, bookcases, chests of drawers, Secretaries, writing desks.

One of the most revealing elements of these pieces is the drawer. Pull it out carefully and inspect it all the way around. Are the runners on the bottom well worn? Have they been replaced or repaired? This would obviously indicate wear which usually indicates age.

Now look at the inside edges of the drawers are there several small overlaps of stain or finish indicating that it’s been refinished a few times, or does it appear that there is no overlap of stain or an extremely faint amount, thus most likely indicating the item is in it’s original finish.(Big points for this, if it is an antique item.)

Are there extra holes next to the posts for the handle pulls. If so the handles were replaced and are not original. Of course even if there are not a pair of offset holes, the handles could have been replaced with a pair that had the exact post set measurements as the original handles. The other way to tell if handles have been replaced is to look close at the finish around the handles, is there a faint outline in the finish or sub-finish from an old handle. (Again, big points for original handles and original hardware.)

Now let’s have a look at the corners of the drawers, are they dovetailed? If so, this is quality construction. Are the dovetails hand-cut or machined? Hand cut would probably indicate an antique, the piece could just be hand crafted, but not very likely. More about that later. For this section, we’ll assume that hand-cut dovetails indicate antiques for the sake of moving along. Hand cut dovetails usually have a very narrow tail offset by a very fat one. Machined dovetails are very uniform in construction. Most of the machined dovetails came out after the 1850s, so it is still possible for an antique to have these and many do. In fact many pieces of antique furniture were manufactured in whole or in part, in factories throughout the world.

Are the corners scalloped with dowels inside a half-circle pattern down the side in a mortise & tenon fashion. This system is usually only seen on furniture made from about 1850 to 1880 and usually country pine more than anything else.

Nailed together joints are usually on home made type furniture, or unimportant manufactured furniture. It can still be well constructed, especially when compared to today’s pseudo wood anti-products, but it will never achieve the collectiblility of it’s well crafted cousins.

You’ll see a slot method on occasion also, this is a step above nailed joints, but below any dovetailing.

An important date for would be antiquers to remember is 1830. It’s the date that many historians recognize as the breakout of the Industrial Revolution. The only true statement we can make from this is that most of what came before it was hand made, and much of what came after was not. It’s not an absolute, but it’s the best we can do.

Antique detecting is like crime detecting in that it’s as much an art as it is a science.

So swell up and pat yourself on the other side all of you antiquers, not only are you kings & queens of the recyclable kingdom, but your an artists and scientists to boot.

Back to that drawer. So you’ve looked at the dovetails in the front of the drawer, but if it’s dovetailed or mortised all the way around it’s of better quality than those who use the method only on the front and leave the back joints to a slot method.

In a similar way, the feet or legs of a piece of case furniture will tell you the same thing. See, it was the common method to put the fancy ball and claw type feet or other fancy feet on the front, and straight feet on the back. The reason being that it often took a craftsman almost as much time to carve a great pair of feet as it would to construct the entire case, so the shortcut was to put straight legs on the back. Therefore the higher quality pieces would have the carved feet all the way around. If you’ve ever wondered why an auctioneer used the phrase ball & claw all the way around, that’s the reason.

Now the feet, if the legs or feet are post types, they should be slightly more narrow on the very bottom due to shrinkage through the ages. There should be wear, especially on chairs, which are moved around more than other pieces of furniture. But we were talking about case furniture weren’t we.

Look for signatures everywhere on the item. EVERYWHERE. With glass and china or other antiques, if there’s a makers mark, it’s common for the makers mark to be on the bottom, with case furniture, it could be on the bottom, the back or anywhere on the inside. I’ve found many pieces that were signed on the insides of drawers, bottoms of drawers, signed in pencil, carved,stamped and labeled. And unfortunately many pieces that are not signed.

Woods: The most commonly used woods were oak, elm, chestnut,walnut,pine, cherry and mahogany. Much of the early Victorian Antique stock is made from Chestnut, but nothing after that. The reason for this is a Chestnut blight that came to the US about 1908 pretty much wiped out the widespread American Chestnut tree.

Much of what is sold as Oak is actually Elm the two are so similar in grain, texture and composition. Pine is generally associated more with Primitives and country antiques. The dark wood on the elegant and very refined pieces are usually Walnut and on later pieces Mahogany. You’ll find Cherry on the better pieces as well, especially where a very hard wood is needed for construction.

On many of the Victorian Oak antiques, what is often referred to as carved, is actually an applied carving, which means a portion of piece is just a section of carving that was a applied or glued. A much easier and less costly process than actually carving the surface of the item. This is the reason you’ll see so many of these beautiful old oak pieces with the same frame, but a different look. That being said, some of these are actually carved and if you look close you can see the difference and should know the difference for it affects the price.

Another common method that is confused for carving is the ‘pressed’ look. This is when a section of a piece, usually chairs, have a design,machine pressed right into them. The chairs that adorn this method are very popular, but still, they are not carved. Probably the most valuable and famous of these chairs is a Larkin #1. Larkin co. out of Buffalo New York was a famous furniture and soap company. The company sold a great many of it’s items through the Sears & Roebuck catalog at the turn of the century. At the time your could order a sideboard for about 20 dollars and a complete dining room set for just under or just over $100 dollars depending on the options.

Another style you’ll see on the old country pieces or cottage pieces as they’re sometimes referred to is, grain painting. This is when the wood, always pine as far as I know, is painted to simulate the grain of a more expensive and exotic wood. Grain painting a practice that was once shunned by purists is now revered for it’s Folksiness. Let that be a lesson, if you go against the experts, you’ll often be in front of the pack. Just make sure if your buying for resale that you haven’t gone so far outside of the box that your unable to sell what you’ve purchased.

Here are a few tips on new, reproduction furniture.

There’s a lot of fine looking furniture coming out of South Pacific countries (fine at first glance that is) that is really of very poor quality and craftsmanship. You’ve probably seen it.

There are lots of Chippendale copies, usually in an exotic dark finish. This is actually something called PU PU wood or some kind of foolishness. It’s very brittle and practically breaks if you talk to loud next to it. I don’t know how it makes it over here on the containers in one piece, but it does. I’ve actually seen runners break pieces just moving them before.

As I said these appear to be great until you get a close look. Be warned though, these have hand cut dovetails and are even handcrafted.

I’m told this PuPu wood is actually a weed in the Philippines, and that they carve it when wet, then run it through a drying process.

Also note, the edges and ends of new furniture will be sharp and straight, old furniture will shrink and round at the edges with age.

Ultra-Shiny reproduction brass hardware on authentic antique Victorian furniture will actually bring down the price at auction. If you don’t have suitable pulls for an item, your better off to leave it bare than to don that garish clink.

Victorians painted their furniture very often, but original painting was always ornamental in nature and never had a solid coat. If you’ve got a solid color painted Victorian piece of furniture, it was defiantly painted years later.

A ‘marriage’ in the antiques world is when two different parts are pieced together to make a complete unit. It used to be that this was an abomination to antiquers, but they came around to accepting it when the ‘shabby chic’ set started buying married pieces. Ahhh….nothing says, “I can live with that” quicker than a good healthy profit. In most cases, never plan on re-finishing a piece for re-sale. In fact if your not a pro, make that never, you just won’t get your money back out of the process.

Learn 10 times more about the people in the business than you do the merchandise and your will be an antiques rock star!