Buying or selling? Avoid the ‘attribution pit’

In today’s antique world there is a great deal of talk and hand wringing over the number of fake and reproduction items being offered. The Professional Show Managers Association is trying to get the Federal Trade Commission to include an “Antiques and Collectibles” category to the Consumer Protection web site to provide an avenue of relief for buyers who fall prey to unscrupulous dealers and fraudulent transactions.

Common Confusion

Attribution desk question

Was this desk made by R.J. Horner? It has winged griffins on it and is heavily carved but it is not marked. (All photos submitted)

In many categories of the antiques and collectibles trade these concerns are justified. This statement is based on the level of expertise used by potential crooks in producing fake objects and reproductions. To the uninitiated in the nuances of say American art pottery or folk art one object looks pretty much like another. In addition, one piece of modern art can be as undecipherable as the next. The use of molds to produce certain kinds of works of art makes reliable checks of authenticity difficult if not impossible.

Of course with almost any category, a professional or vigorous amateur who has dedicated his or her life to the pursuit of knowledge on the subject can easily detect a fake Roseville Futura vase or a bogus Buddy L Tanker Truck reproduction. It’s all the other folks in the beginning and middle phases of collecting facing troubles.

But the area of antique furniture does not have quite so difficult a problem. It is significantly harder and much more expensive to duplicate an early 18th century Queen Anne chair than a 1920s toy truck. Plus, the duplication of a Federal sideboard clearly is a work of major proportion. And the return in most cases would result in a net loss for the faker. It’s just too hard to do a good fake of antique furniture. There have been some notable exceptions like the “seventeenth century” turned chair made in the 1970s by Armand LeMontagne. These chairs are formed with the express purpose of embarrassing some museum officials. This fact is explained by Myrna Kaye in “Fake, Fraud or Genuine?”

Attribution Can Create Challenge

LeMontagne was so successful in his attempt that the museum officials did not believe him. Even after he confessed to the counterfeit they weren’t buying it. But for the most part, outright fake antique furniture is easily detectable. Even by the occasional collector with a little bit of interest in the subject. Plus, it is generally not worth the effort for the crook.

But there are other areas in the furniture category that do have room for some confusion. And perhaps a little bit wishful thinking or artful redirection. True American antique furniture pieces in good condition with a reliable provenance and some verifiable traces of the maker normally sell for higher prices than do “anonymous” similar pieces. While it is true that occasionally the impressive workmanship and style found on a genuine anonymous treasure will lead to a bidding battle at auction that recognizes the quality of the piece, it more often falls to the better known name with a wider recognition.

That leads to two areas of potential concern: labeling and attribution. One of the best works on the subject of labeling is William C. Ketchum’s book “American Cabinetmakers – Marked American Furniture 1640-1940” published by Crown in 1995. It is the most comprehensive work on an elusive subject that still leaves lots of room for more investigation. Ketchum illustrates such seldom seen marks as Duncan Phyfe’s paper label used between 1811 and 1815. The label appears on furniture when his shop was on Partition Street. Or, the engraved label of Anthony Quervelle when he was on Second Street in Philadelphia.

Rely on More Than Labels

Non-Hunzinger rocker

Sadly this factory made late nineteenth century platform rocker was not made by Hunzinger as the buyer had been assured by the seller.

But Ketchum also shows the hand signed marks of people like John Chipman. He’s the Salem, Massachusetts cabinetmaker who signed a Chippendale blockfront secretary made between 1770 and 1790. Plus, there’s the brand of William Fiske on a Hepplewhite mahogany chair while working in Salem 1788-1793.

Brands and chalk signatures are hard to duplicate accurately. However, paper labels and metal tags leave lots of room for chicanery. Metal and porcelain tags, like some of those used by R. J. Horner, have an annoying habit of falling off the back of a cabinet and reappearing elsewhere. Paper labels can be carefully removed and accurately duplicated with laser scanning technology available to anyone. In fact, some very good new reproduction labels are boldly offered for sale for Globe-Wernicke and Macey bookcases on America’s universal auction site.

Other “vintage” labels, including paper and foil, are offered for Hoosier, Knoll, Charles Eames and Herman Miller among others. In the Fall/Winter 2006-07 edition of “Style 1900,” a magazine devoted to Arts & Crafts, noted Arts & Crafts authority, author and collector Bruce Johnson responds to a reader’s concerns about fraudulent L. & J. G. Stickley labels. He said “Shopmarks sometimes render collectors temporarily blind to otherwise obvious clues.” He then cites author David Cathers who said in 1981, “Get to know the furniture first by examining it carefully – then look for marks of confirmation.”

Falling Prey to the Slippery Slope of Attribution

This gets harder to do in some periods. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century,

Furniture Styles

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a great many cabinetmakers and factories did not label their work for a variety of reasons. That makes it awfully hard to confirm your suspicion (or hopes) that the cabinet might be a Pabst, Herter Brothers or Berkey & Gay cabinet. That leads to the next area of possible misdirection: the attribution game.

Many dealers and auctioneers, when at a loss for descriptive material for a catalog or advertisement, easily fall into the “attribution pit.” Surrounding this deep pit is a long slippery slope lubricated with terms like “it looks just like …,” “it’s the same style as …,” and “there was one at…” It’s at the point where almost any piece with upholstery featuring a carved head and face is “attributed to Jelliff.” It is true that John Jelliff (1813-1893) of New Jersey is responsible for some parlor sets with head and face carvings. But so did a number of other cabinetmakers and carvers.

And Jelliff wasn’t even in the business when most of the Renaissance Revival sets attributed to him were made. Jelliff actually retired in 1860 and his company was taken over by an employee, Henry H. Miller, who continued the business under Jelliff’s name until 1890. So is that parlor set an artifact of John Jelliff & Co.? If it has the simple brand used by Miller after Jelliff retired, “J.J. Co.” it probably is. If it is unmarked it probably isn’t.

Similar, But Different Isn’t Authentic

As far as distinctive features appearing in the attribution pit, all animals with wings, griffins or not, do not come from R.J. Horner. This is the case even though most carry an attribution of such. And all Mission oak chairs are not some variation of the Stickley family as much as someone might want them to be. Plus, all odd shape and angular chairs are not the work of George Hunzinger no matter how quirky they are.

For a piece to bear proper attribute it must match in detail an authentic example of the maker’s work. It can’t just “look just like it.” The attribution must also be based on some unique skill, design or quality possessed by the maker that differentiates him from other cabinetmakers and it helps to have at least some provenance that lends some credibility to the attribution. Without these points in place, an unwarranted attribution is just wishful thinking that could lead to long term unhappy results.

Furniture Detective by Fred TaylorFor more information: Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email info@furnituredetective.com. Visit www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. Fred’s book, “How To Be A Furniture Detective,” is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17+$3 S&H) is also available. Send checks or money orders to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423. For more information call (800) 387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from www.furnituredetective.com.

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