Like us, furniture doesn't always want to tell its true age


September 12, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

For most people, buying anything antique is tricky business since there's a persistent fear that an expensive purchase might not be authentic. Buying American furniture can be particularly tricky, because pieces in the Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal tastes have been made from the 18th century to the present day. Since these styles were widely interpreted in their own eras and have survived and been revived for so long, often it's difficult to tell whether something is old, very old or not so old.

The good news for those furnishing a house or apartment, or starting a collection on a budget, is that there are some good values in the "not so old" category, so long as pieces are priced and sold honestly. (Always ask for a receipt clearly describing and dating what you're buying; good dealers should stand by their descriptions.) For example, a growing number of serious antiquers are focusing on Colonial Revival furniture (made after the nation's 1876 Centennial celebration); after all, some Centennial furniture, as it's often called, is over 100 years old, finely made and has a warm patina of age.

Others who want a Colonial look and aren't finicky about authenticity are finding good buys in "grandmother's furniture," antique reproductions manufactured in the period between World War I and World War II. Current reproductions, many licensed by museums, often combine good quality with easy availability, although the best can be expensive.

Changing economics

When an old chest of drawers costs $300, few people worried if it was a genuine antique or not. It probably was -- it didn't pay to fake it. But that's changing now that 18th-century Chippendale chests can cost $3,000, $30,000 or even $300,000 each. Collectors, dealers and museum curators slowly are coming out of the woodwork, admitting they've been fooled now and then by particularly good fakes or restored pieces. They're increasingly cautious before making expensive acquisitions and are investing honing their connoisseur's skills.

Education can make savvier consumers, so more and more museums, universities, auction houses and dealers are sponsoring seminars, producing video tapes and mounting exhibitions to give collectors the information they need to buy with confidence.

What hasn't changed over the years is that the best ways to

learn about antiques are visiting museums, reading extensively, questioning experts, mastering proper terminology and examining objects first-hand -- letting them communicate to you what they are.

The Winterthur Museum in Delaware, long an educational leader in the field of American decorative arts, recently opened two permanent exhibitions in its new Henry S. McNeil Gallery. The "Furniture Study" exhibit illustrates 14 ways to judge an object's quality and authenticity, criteria equally "applicable to baseball cards," according to Winterthur's director, Dwight P. Lanmon. "Survivals and Revivals" displays works by seven 19th- and 20th-century furniture makers who copied designs from the Colonial era. (For exhibition information, write to Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del. 19735, or call [302] 888-4600.)

"Nothing is a fake until it's sold with the intent to defraud," says Winterthur's furniture curator, Robert Trent, who views Colonial Revival pieces as worthy of serious study. The reproduction furniture exhibited "is not a cheap substitute for period furniture, it stands on its own," he contends.

"Colonial Revival furniture is an excellent value. The craftsmanship is superb, and it generally sells for a fraction of what a period piece goes for," says Ronald Bourgeault, of Northeast Auctions, in Hampton, N.H., who recently sold for $1,320 a Philadelphia Chippendale style carved mahogany armchair from the late 19th century, which once belonged to William Maxwell Evarts, President Rutherford B. Hayes' secretary state. "Had the chair been made a century earlier, it would have brought $250,000," Mr. Bourgeault says.

Even experts admit that looks can be deceiving. "It isn't so easy to tell the difference between 100 and 150 years of wear," notes Deborah Dependahl Waters, curator of "Is It Phyfe?" an exhibit worth seeing at the Museum of the City of New York, through Oct. 24. (For information call [212] 534-1672.) Side by side for the first time are masterpieces by Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), a prolific New York cabinetmaker whose name has become synonymous with neo-classical furniture, and reproductions of his work by Ernest F. Hagen (1830-1913) and the Company of Master Craftsmen. For years many of these copies were attributed to Phyfe, and the exhibit helps tell the difference.

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