One of our favorite places to hunt for furniture is at auction houses, antique stores, and flea markets. But how do you tell the difference between a hidden treasure and something best left alone? We spoke to furniture appraisal expert Andrew Holter to find out.
Look closely to see how the piece was made
Does the room you are looking at have drawers? If so, take them out and see how they were constructed. This will reveal whether the piece was handmade or not. “Look at the side of the drawer, you should see dovetails,” says Holter. “And inside the front of the drawer, where it joins the sides, there should also be larger cut marks. These are called kerf Brands. They indicate where the cabinetmaker cut the dovetails in the front of the drawer to attach them with the sides of the drawer. It’s sort of the marks left by the saw. You want to see them. These are telltale signs of craftsmanship.”
Generally speaking, the older the part and the further it was produced from a city center, the larger the dovetails will be. “During the 17th and 18th centuries, from William and Mary’s furniture period to Queen Anne, they were kind of slamming things together, and they didn’t have time for little little queues of things. ‘dovetail,’ says Holter. “Away from the city centers you have craftsmen who have not been trained in the typical heavy apprenticeship way in a cabinet maker’s shop.”
On the other hand, the best cabinetmakers of the first hour showed their know-how by making the necks of the dovetail much thinner. “As you go into the later periods, you’ll find that the dovetails become more refined, and then, eventually, you see them disappear,” says Holter.
If you don’t see any dovetails, then the part is probably held together with nails and glue, which is a sign that the part was made in a factory closer to the 20th century.
Discover the material
While you have the drawer looking for dovetails, don’t forget to inspect the hardware as well. “When you pull out a drawer and look at the back of the handle, you should expect to see a threaded post and nut securing that brass to the front of the drawer,” says Holter. “If you don’t see this nut and just see what appears to be the top of a slotted or flathead screw going toward the face of the drawer, that indicates the hardware is newer. That’s also a good indication that the coin isn’t old either.”
Try to find a signature, tag or stamp
While signatures are rare on 17th and 18th century pieces, Holter says to check the backs and undersides of the drawers (which, as we’ve come to realize, contain a lot of information about age and authenticity of a piece of furniture!) to potentially find pencil marks or chalk signatures that may indicate who made the piece and where it was produced. Does the room you are looking at have no drawer? Check either its back or its underside.
“In the late 19th century through the 1950s, you start to see factory-made furniture with pads,” says Holter. “You won’t find many names, but you will find numbers printed or stenciled inside the drawers, which correspond to the model numbers of the models produced by the factory.”
Check for damage
Where a part is most likely to be damaged depends a lot on which part of the furniture is most subject to wear.
“We like to rock back in chairs, don’t we?” So the back of the chair,” says Holter, or “the top part called the ridge and the center supports, also known as the splats, are the parts most likely to have been repaired or replaced.”
Dressers, which can be heavy, were often pushed rather than lifted and moved. Holter suggests looking at the feet first for damage and replacements.
If you see cracks in the wood, don’t worry too much. “Wood expands and contracts over time due to temperature fluctuations and creates shrinkage cracks,” says Holter. “You should expect to see coined ones from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. That’s common, and I don’t necessarily think they hurt a coin’s value.”
Know the difference between a repair and a replacement
It may seem obvious, but repairs are when original pieces have been fixed to a piece of furniture. A replacement is when the missing part has been repaired with an entirely new part.
Decide what you think of refurbished furniture
There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to finishing a piece of furniture. The first is that the original finish of the piece is part of the history of that piece and should never be touched. “Purists believe that the original finish gives the item its authenticity, as it has never been touched. The finish is made up of overlapping layers of dirt, oils and grime that have accumulated on the piece “, says Holter.
Telltale signs that a part still has its original finish are if the part looks purple or black in color. It may also have a cracked surface or a slightly cracked varnish. “Think of a surface that almost looks like tiny alligator skin with cracks in it – that’s what earthenware looks like,” says Holter. “It happens over time with the degradation of the varnish when exposed to heat.”
Although the original finish may represent the age of the piece, it may also mask the qualities of the wood that the cabinetmaker originally intended to capitalize on. “A lot of people argue that a part that has turned purple or black with age is not what the manufacturer originally intended it to look like,” says Holter. “It would have been brilliant when new. The beauty of the wood itself – which may have been used to accent parts of the piece – is now obscured.”
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the original surface brings what Holter calls an “X-factor” to the piece, a factor that can add to the value of the object. Once it’s gone, it can never be added back, although you can find skilled people to replicate the old surface.
Online auctions are great!
If you don’t have a good antique store or auction house near you, feel free to look online. In addition to sites like auction square and auctioneersmany established companies like Christie’s and Sotheby’s offer online supplements to their scheduled auctions.
“Traditionally, people like to touch a piece of furniture, smell it, and see it in person,” says Holter. “So it’s very important to trust the seller or the auction house you’re buying from. You need to trust that the seller will tell you accurately that a piece is genuine and if there have been any repairs or replacements made.”
Still worried about taking photos out? Train your eye by doing a little research on furniture styles. Holter loves the book The new subtleties of furniture (Crown, 320 pages) by Albert Sac.
Always buy what you like
“You shouldn’t treat these things as investments,” says Holter. “Value can fluctuate just like stocks and bonds – just because they’re antiques and they’re old doesn’t mean the value will constantly rise.”
But after carefully checking the part, considering its age, and checking the original dovetails and hardware, what’s the ultimate advice? “The most important point is: buy what you like,” says Holter. “Because you have to live with it!”