Antiques: The look of antique


"The collector or dealer who hasn't bought a phony antique thinking it was genuine doesn't live," said a dealer with a national reputation for handling antiques of the finest quality. "I've been buying in this country and in England for better than twenty-five years, but I still get fooled once in a while.

Usually it is when I haven't taken time to examine a piece carefully enough. At a quick glance it seems perfect, and I get in a hurry and buy it. But then, if it happens to be furniture, my repairman has a good time setting me right when the piece reaches his shop. He puts such a blunder aside and waits to show me each wrong detail-the new leg, the inlay that has been added, the modern tool marks in a drawer bottom, all are pointed out with ill-concealed delight.

"But he's not the only one who has fun with me when I make a wrong buy. Some time ago I went to a country auction down in South Jersey. The auctioneer was already selling when I arrived, and an interesting animal-shaped bottle was up. It looked good and I bid it in for about five dollars.

When my son saw it he recognized it as the kind in which a well-known imported liqueur is sold and told me that the purchase was no credit to me, either as a dealer or as a drinking man. He keeps it on a shelf in the office just to remind me that I don't know it all."

This dealer spoke from long experience. With antiques, nothing is so true as the old proverb about acting in haste and repenting at leisure. But with even the beginning collector, care and thorough examination before making a purchase can go a long way toward keeping the number of fake or questionable antiques that he buys few and far between. If he has laid a good groundwork by frequent visits to museums, antiques shows and dealers' shops, and has been a good observer, his eye and mind will have become so trained that subconsciously he will recognize an antique when he sees it. In about the same way too, he will be wary of a deliberate fake or a piece of doubtful antecedents.

Unwittingly he will have developed a sixth sense, similar to that of the private detective in a metropolitan hotel who, watching hundreds of guests, spots the questionable one almost as soon as his eyes light on him. "I don't know just how we do it," such a detective once told me, "but there is something about the 'skip,' the cardsharper or other crook that warns us practically at a glance."

Antiques being mostly individual pieces with few exact duplicates, each collector must be his own sleuth. In fact, developing the ability to spot the genuine and detect the spurious is part of the fun of being a collector. If the surroundings where an interesting antique is found are not in keeping with its quality, so much the better.

A half-round Sheraton card table of cherry that I still own was one of my early lucky strikes. I first saw it about thirty years ago while riding on the rear platform of a Brooklyn trolly car. A colored porter had it perched on his shoulder and was carrying it into a second-hand furniture store. I got off the street car at the next corner and was in the store almost as soon as the table was. After a pretense of looking around, I evinced a mild interest in the newly arrived piece, found the price was five dollars and began looking it over in earnest. Turned upside down, it showed no traces of later replacements, either as to legs or part of the double top. One couldn't be certain of the wood because of the numerous coats of stain and varnish, but I bought it anyway. Subsequently I had it refinished by an expert cabinetmaker who was able to remove the layers of varnish without disturbing the patina of old cherry. Even now, whenever I look at it, there comes a warm sense of satisfaction-with the table because of its mellow glow and graceful lines, and with myself because I had sense enough to buy it.

Even before the table episode I had learned something about furniture, which was my first love among antiques, by haunting antique shops and trudging through museum galleries. I had learned that old wood has a different look from new; that any piece of furniture that has been in daily use for three generations or more is bound to bear signs of wear. These things, as well as the material from which it was made and the indications of use, not abuse, are the cardinal points that the collector first observes with any antique.

There is a difference in the material from which modern machine-made household pieces are made and that used four or more generations ago. Learning to recognize it is not too difficult, nor does it require an extensive collection at the start. Take just one antique. It may be a simple slatback chair, a porcelain or earthenware plate, a silver spoon, a brass candlestick, or a piece of either blown or pressed glass. Put it beside a similar modern piece and compare the two. Go over them with a strong reading glass and note the difference in texture. Study them right side up and upside down. If the objects are glass, tap each lightly with a pencil. Listen for the bell-like ring of old lead glass, and the dull thud of the cheaper and later lime glass.

As I write, I have before me two blue and white plates. They were both made in one or another of the Staffordshire potteries of England. The indigo-blue tint of the transferprinted allover decoration is about the same in each, but one plate was made for the American market fully seventy-five years earlier than the other. How does one know? The older plate has a pronounced upward curve and a slightly scalloped edge. The new plate is much flatter, and was obviously machine-pressed. Also, when I hold both plates in my hands and compare their weight, I sense that the newer one is heavier. The older a piece of Staffordshire pottery, the lighter is its comparative weight.

Next, in passing my hand lightly over both plates, my fingertips tell me that the glaze on the newer one is smoother and more grasslike. Then, by looking across both plates toward the light, I see on the older one a multitude of fine scratches caused by knife strokes in cutting meat during the countless times it saw use as a dinner plate. Also, near the center and along the inner edge of the rim the glaze is dulled, even nearly worn through as a result of the plate being piled with others like it on a cupboard shelf.

Turning the plates over, I can see that the glaze of the older is distinctly crazed and covered with a minute irregular network of light brown hair lines. This crazing was caused chiefly by repeated warmings, in brick ovens or in those wood-burning cook stoves that came into use in American homes about 1825. The newer plate, never much used, has none of this crazing, the mark of age and plenty of use. Also, at three places equidistant around the rim of the antique piece, there are three groups of pinhead-like roughnesses in the glaze. The old method was to separate plates stacked in the kiln for firing with little pin-like bits of clay called stilts. Such stilt marks are, of course, absent in the new plate.

Lastly, there are the potter's marks. On the older plate it is impressed, and reads: "Clewes Patented Staffordshire." On the newer, the mark is printed beneath the glaze in the same blue as the design, and reads: "Wedgwood, Etruria, England." This statement of the country of origin is the result of a law passed in 1892 requiring that all merchandise imported into the United States be so marked. The newer plate is therefore proved to have been made at some date after 1892 and is consequently not to be classed as an antique. As for the plate with the Clewes mark, reference to a standard book on Staffordshire pottery discloses that James and Ralph Clewes operated their pottery at Burslem from 1819 to 1836.

I have given this step-by-step account of examining these plates so that I might show what can be learned by comparison and because I believe that careful observation is the only way by which the collector can know what he is looking for. Sometimes, when you know what to observe, it is as easy as it was with these plates; at other times, the telling points may be more difficult to find. Always, difference in the material, ways in which the work was done and what I like to call normal signs of wear can be detected if one will look hard enough. Of course, there are the rare exceptions of old pieces that were never used and were always kept scrupulously protected; but even they serve to prove the general rule that an antique will give up its clues if you will study it as carefully as you would examine the records of stocks or bonds you consider acquiring for investment.

As an example of how this side-by-side comparison of a known antique and a similar object that is comparatively new works with furniture, let us consider two bedside tables. One is of the sort that can be found in many antique shops. It has a square top, four square tapering legs and a shallow drawer in the bed. The other is part of a modern factory-made bedroom set. The finish of the antique table has the mellow tone of age. The top is somewhat scratched, and the edges of the legs, especially near the floor, are just a little battered and rounded where they have been hit by cleaning utensils in weekly cleanings over a century or more of use.

The finish of the new table is much brighter; the varnish shines; the legs are not yet much marred by use. The top still retains a certain smooth, mirror-like quality and its edges and corners are sharp. Next we examine both drawers.

Sides, back and bottom of the drawer in the antique table are of a soft wood that has taken on a light brown color, which has a slightly weathered tone because the interior was never varnished or shellacked. The drawer interior in the new table looks almost as fresh as when it left the factory, since it was as thoroughly varnished as the rest of the piece.

Look at the side pieces of the drawer from the old table. About a quarter of an inch of the lower edge of each is worn away as a result of the numberless times the drawer has been opened and shut; the drawer sides of the new table are not worn, because of less use. Finally, notice the bottom boards of both drawers. The antique one has rough planing on its underside, leaving ridges and hollows that can be felt if you pass your fingertips over it lightly. That of the new drawer is as perfectly planed on its under side as on the top. Besides, it is a piece of plywood, something never used by the old furniture makers.

The legs of the old table are joined by mortise and tenon joints to the cross members that form the bed; the legs of the new one are held in place by iron screws that pass through diagonal corner blocks concealed beneath the top. Unscrew one and you can lift that leg out of its position, which cannot be done with the legs of an old table, since its mortise and tenon joints were made fast with hot glue.

One more striking variation has to do with the quantity of wood used. Much less went into the parts of the new table than into the old. The legs are slighter, the top thinner by at least a quarter of an inch and just enough wood was used in the drawer parts to hold it together. There was no such skimping on wood with the old table, and it was made far stronger than was actually necessary.

When the old craftsmen worked, lumber was relatively cheap and they used as much as they felt was needed. Today lumber is expensive, and furniture factories naturally keep the amount of wood used as near the minimum as possible, even though the result is furniture that is too slightly built. Whether a piece will last is a question not considered.

Turning once more to my own modest collection, there is a set of Irish cut-glass decanters which date back to about 1835, and from their shape and style of cutting could easily be some twenty-five years older. These four decanters must have been treated tenderly and used only on important occasions, for they are free of chips or nicks. Visible proof of age is to be found, though, on the base of each. It consists in a myriad of fine scratches caused by fine particles of grit which gradually left their marks when the decanters were moved about.

In examining any antique, the collector will be wise to look it over in a clear light. Personally, I prefer either bright sunlight, a cold north light, or an unshaded 300- to 500-watt electric lamp. Do not be in too much of a hurry. Take time enough to get a general impression of the object. Consider the decorative details. They should jibe with the general design and construction; otherwise you are perhaps looking at a transitional piece made in an earlier style period, with decorative detail of some ten or even fifty years later.

An example of this might be an American Chippendale slant-top desk with a spread eagle inlaid in the center of the lid. This could be proper if the piece was the work of a country cabinetmaker. Many of these craftsmen continued certain designs for some time after they had gone out of favor in larger centers. Shift to newer modes was gradual, with decorative touches coming first. Such a cabinetmaker might make a Chippendale desk as late as 1790 to which he added the Hepplewhite decoration of an eagle in inlay. However, if done fairly recently by some ill-informed repairman, it would be an example of bad glorification not hard to detect, since he would use a stock inlay.

Also, since the most desirable antiques are those in mint condition-that is, as nearly perfect as when they came from the hands of their makers-one that has been repaired is naturally not as valuable. For instance, an Oriental Lowestoft plate that has been broken and mended so skillfully that the repair is not apparent until the plate is turned over and the rivets seen may be quite usable, but its value is only half that of the same plate in perfect condition.

Also, a mirror with regilded frame is not as desirable as one in original condition, even though the frame of the latter may have some dull spots. Old mirror glass usually has fine spots where the quicksilver is discolored, and the general tint of the silvering has a steel-like quality. Therefore a glass lacking these characteristics is probably a replacement.

There is a sheen to old silver and pewter that only age and repeated polishings over a period of years can give. New pieces in either of these metals have a totally different look. Examined under a microscope, the surface of the old pieces will show a mat of minute scratches and sometimes equally small dents. These, again, are the signs of normal wear that bespeak the genuineness of the pieces that bear them.

Basic antiques

Finding antique

American fireplace
American mirrors
Baltimore furniture
Common clocks
Queen Anne furniture
Romantic furniture
Sanderson & Salem
Secret drawers
Small sideboards

Glass American
Glass knobs
Sandwich salt dishes
Vermont glass company

Look of antique

Metal wares
Antique Andirons
Birmingham brass
Pewter, Brass, Copper

Chinese influence
Penny banks

Porcelain, Earthenware
Adam Caire
Antique dishes (Dutch)
Yang Stai

Prints & Paintings
Advertising lithographs
Robert Fulton
Samuel F.B. Morse

Drawers & Beds
Furniture hardware
Pewter, Silver, China
Tables & Chairs

Silver & Imitations
Huguenot silversmiths
Silver towns
Women silversmith

Textiles & Needlework
Pennsylvania panels
Quilting bee
Rugs hooking