Antiques never go out of style, whether they are family heirlooms that bring back memories or pieces bought or acquired, replete with secrets and stories. Of course, craftsmanship and detailing count, not to mention that antiques appreciate in value.
An antique is any item that’s at least 100 years old. The term, however, is used to describe vintage items too (that may be just 50 years old). Serious collectors must do their homework on styles and periods. They should also learn about different woods as it is significant to the value. Also, intact original hardware and panel inserts trump restored pieces. A good restorer can make a severely damaged piece look as good as new, but this devalues it as much as if it were damaged.
An experienced eye helps tell genuine antiques from fakes, but here are a few basic pointers:
• Make sure the piece is not a hybrid of bits of other old items. To tell, you must be aware of the lines, proportions, scale and techniques of a particular period, such as dovetail joints and cabriole legs.
• Almost all antique furniture uses solid woods. Different woods were popular in different periods and styles but combinations of wood are not common.
• The top, feet, backs and bottoms should be intact. Check the size of the boards, look for saw marks on backs of chests and under tables or secondary wood inside drawers and in dresser backs. A smooth edge indicates a power saw, in contrast to the ragged edges cut by a handsaw.
• Read up on construction methods from different traditions and periods, including joints and hinging methods. New dovetails are either machine-made or much narrower than the wide (up to 3/8-inches) dovetails of the 1800s. Compare all joints: Perfect matches could mean the furniture is newer than advertised; gross differences suggest replaced parts.
• New nails are a dead giveaway. In genuine pieces, you will see handmade square or rosehead nails or blunt-ended screws. Inspect for old or filled nail and screw holes. They can also indicate that the original handles or hinges are gone.
• Exposed wood darkens and shrinks over time; hidden, protected areas remain closer to their original colour and grain. If these signs are not visible or are intentionally covered up, be alert.
• Wood shrinks as it ages (up to 1/8-inch per foot). In old furniture, dimensions will not be uniform: It won’t be the same width throughout; a tabletop will not be perfectly round. Run your hand over it and shine a flashlight across the surface to detect hairline cracks and ripples that come with age. Look underneath for the inevitable warping and buckling.
• New glass can be made to show “strips”, like old glass. But if you stand to a side, you often see gold dust floating in it because old mirror glass is usually thin. Use a pocket-sized spirit level on glass panes and mirrors. Glass, too, warps with age.
• A great deal of time, exposure and patience is required to learn about carving and inlay techniques across periods and styles, but this is the easiest way to spot a fake.
• Metallic elements often develop a patina from years of exposure to air. Antique copper, for example, appears greenish. Reproductions use paint to artificially create a patina, but it should be easily detected: Look for consistency in patina. In gilded pieces, learn to tell apart actual gold leaf, paint and less expensive metals.
• Look for unique trademarks or manufacturing stamps. Reproductions may not have any identifiers at all or use those from other eras.
• Look at the frame under upholstery for nail holes from previous upholstery.
• On surfaces, uniform colouring, texture and smoothness point to newness or refinishing. Look for wood discoloured from uneven exposure to light and sun. Check the wood beneath the hardware.
• Genuine antiques come with signs of age, so wormholes, marks of wear and tear, build-up of dust and grime in corners and crevices indicate age.
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