The Real Deal: Antique or Reproduction?

Courtesy photo
Early craftsmen used hand-cut mortise-and-tenon joints, dovetail joints and wooden pegs that are found in the sides of drawers, cabinets, and other pieces.

There is a time when any antique 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 even 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.

Creating an outright fake antique chair or chest takes a high level of skill and expense, so, what you are much more likely to encounter are reproductions with a good many years of use on them. Today, furniture styles of past periods and designers are still manufactured and sold as new, but the uneducated buyer can easily mistake a reproduction to be an antique.

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 exceptions that are surprisingly well crafted. Many new sellers have no idea that they are serving up reproductions, so, again, education is your best defense against getting taken in these cases.

Since dismantling a chair or chest at an antique store or 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.

First, buyers should be wary of the enticement of the obviously underpriced. It’s important to remember that someone else is doing the stealing when something “is a steal.” Most buyers are somewhat susceptible to low prices and can delude themselves into thinking the “antique” is a steal. Hence, it is always best to buy from a trusted and knowledgeable dealer or auction house.

Since wood shrinks across the grain but not along it, very old furniture may appear to be misshapen. A tabletop or 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 cabinet side are also indicators of age-related shrinkage. One of the best tools that a wise antique buyer should have is a caliper that can help determine whether shrinkage has occurred.

Denting, bruising and gouging out areas of some primitive furniture are used to simulate handcrafting. Be aware of excessive wear marks and those that in the wrong areas, as compared to the old originals. The faker tends to over do the effects of aging.

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 date to 1860.

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.

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Examine the nails to determine the age of antique furniture.

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.

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 from all one kind of wood, it is probably a reproduction.

A maker’s mark is another way to authenticate an antique. This could be a brand on the underside, a paper manufacturer’s label or a chalk or ink signature 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 1850-1899.  By the early 1900’s 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.

As you can see, there are lots of ways to be fooled; if I am still not sure, I start looking 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. Look to be sure 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 if a piece “speaks to you,”… enjoy it. 

Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com. On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Michellesprimitiveantiques/?ref=bookmarks

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Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 23 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.