Before there was Antiques Roadshow and YouTube videos that helped antique owners and buyers authenticate real antiques and uncover fakes, there was Myrna Kaye. Thirty years ago, in 1987, she published a book called Fake, Fraud, or Genuine: Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture. The book is written for collectors of antique furniture and is intended to help savvy buyers avoid being taken in by pieces that are not what they seem.
Kaye begins with the Case of the Fake Seventeenth-Century Chair. Back in the 1970s, a clever period-craftsman, after being insulted by the staff at a nearby museum, decided to build a fake seventeenth-century turned chair and pass it off as a genuine article. And it worked. He built the chair from new wood but used period-correct tools and styling. Then, using an antiques dealer who was in on the game, the craftsman successfully got the chair into the local antiques market. The chair changed hands several times before ending up on prominent display in a museum. Only after it was featured in several magazines and books did the original maker come forward to challenge the authenticity of the chair. It took X-rays to reveal that the chair had, in fact, been made using some modern tools and was confirmed to be a fake.
It’s a great story–something you might read in a quirky detective novel. But Kaye reminds us that not all fraudulent antiques are products are such a dramatic narrative.
Much more common, she says, are the following types of fraudulent antiques:
- Old Parts, New Object: Materials from one or several genuine antiques are used to make a new piece that still looks old because its parts and materials are old. Example: a new “Chippendale settee” made from pieces of several broken Chippendale chairs.
- Remade Object: Genuine antiques that have been modified, repaired, or enhanced so much that they have lost much of their value as real antiques. Example: an originally plain chair enhanced with new carvings and a replaced splat and seat.
- Married Piece: Originally two pieces (often one significantly newer than the other) that have been put together and presented as a single piece. Example: an old top to a high chest set on a newer, reproduction secretary.
In distinguishing reproductions (either honest, period-style reproductions or clever fakes), Kaye has some good advice. First, know the marks of each furniture style, whether seventeenth century, Queen Anne, Chippendale, or Federal. There were variations within each style, of course, but if a piece seems to mix elements of two different styles, it’s probably not genuine. Kaye’s overview of each major American style is brief but very helpful in pointing out some of the distinguishing marks of each style.
Second, examine a piece of furniture closely for signs of its true age. While it’s possible to make a fake antique so convincing that it will fool experts, most pieces will give up their secrets upon close inspection. But you have to know what to look for–and where to look for it. The undersides of tables and the insides of cases can be especially telling.
As someone who uses traditional hand tools and occasionally dabbles in period styles, I was already familiar with a number of Kaye’s points. For example, cut nails were first used early in the nineteenth century, and wire nails became common late in the nineteenth century, so if you find an “eighteenth century antique” with pieces held on by wire nails, you should be suspicious. I also know to feel for the scalloped surface left by a jack plane on the undersides of secondary surfaces. Modern planers leave a very different surface.
But I also learned a number of things about identifying genuine antiques:
- Until the later nineteenth century, very few furniture makers signed their work. If you find what appears to be a maker’s mark (whether in ink or as a stamp) on an earlier antique, it is probably an owner’s mark.
- Many antiques have holes from old hardware that has long since been removed. Some holes, such as plugged holes from replaced drawer pulls, are easy to explain. Others are more difficult. On the bottoms of feet, for example, you will often find holes from old casters. “Leave no hole unexplained,” Kaye advises.
- Use a needle and thread to test worm holes. If the needle goes all the way through a worm hole, then that piece of wood was wormy when the wood was first cut to size, and that means that that piece of wood (and possibly the whole piece of furniture) was made from reclaimed wood–which was never done until the twentieth century. On genuine antiques, worm holes always bottom out. Worms start inside the wood and chew their way out. They don’t chew all the way through a piece of wood.
- Rocking chairs did not exist in America after the Civil War. If you find an eighteenth-century rocking chair, then either the rockers were added later or the whole thing is a fake. Remember the opening scene of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot? Gibson’s character is a colonial farmer attempting to make a Windsor rocking chair, and it collapses under him when he sits on it. It’s a funny scene, but Gibson should have done a little more homework on period furniture styles. Rocking chairs were unknown in colonial America.
In the thirty years since Kaye published her book, I’m sure there have been a lot of changes in the antique furniture market. But now that period-style hand tools are widely available and instruction in traditional hand-tool work is easy to come by, I expect that fakes–both intentional frauds and honest mistakes–are also more common than they once were. In the coming decades, it will be all too easy to mistake a good, twentieth-century reproduction chair or spice chest for a remarkably-well-preserved nineteenth-century antique.
Kaye’s book has had staying power. You can still buy a new copy on Amazon for about $18, but old library copies are easy to find for under $8 on ABE.com and other used book sites. The book is generously illustrated with photos of genuine antiques, as well as many fakes, frauds, and reproductions. If you are a collector of antique furniture looking for sound advice (or a greedy, unscrupulous period-furniture maker looking for inspiration), I highly recommend this book. I am neither, but the next time I browse the furniture in an antique shop, I’m going to have a lot of fun trying to pick out the fakes, the frauds, and the genuine articles.