Furniture Detective: Antique furniture mythbusting


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There is a body of erroneous wisdom about furniture that somehow manages to survive and even evolve from generation to generation, like an infection, in spite of repeated applications of the antibiotic — the facts. Here are a few mutations of the malady and a new infusion of disinfectant.

Lie No. 1: You need to oil your furniture to keep the wood moisturized.

The whole purpose of finishing wood in furniture in the first place is to protect it from moisture. The entire process of “curing” newly cut wood is to control the expulsion of moisture from the wood. Cut timber is dried to about 7 percent moisture content before it is made into furniture. Once that level is achieved, it should be stable and no further moisturizing is needed. Besides, in most cases when you apply something to a piece of furniture, you never even touch the wood — you are touching a finish applied over the wood to protect it. It does no good to apply oil to a finish unless it is a penetrating oil finish to begin with.

Think of the finish on your furniture like you would think of the paint job on your car. Your car is painted to keep the metal from rusting. Your furniture is likewise finished to protect it, and most furniture finishes have a lot in common with automotive finishes. They are synthetically produced films applied to a surface. You would not oil the exterior of your car, and you don’t need to oil the exterior of your furniture.

Lie No. 2: The presence of veneer indicates poor quality.

It is true that some poor-quality furniture has veneer on it, but the veneer itself is not what makes it poor quality. Some of the best furniture in the world is veneered, and some of the worst is made from solid stock. The application of veneer to furniture surfaces is a practice that is thousands of years old. There is even evidence that the Egyptians used this technique in some of their furniture construction.

The real key to quality in veneered furniture is how nice the veneer is, how well the work is done and what the veneer is applied over. Attractive, well-finished veneer laid over a good-quality wood substrate, like that used in lumber-core plywood, is an indication of quality. Thin veneer laid over particle board or fiber board is generally of lesser quality.

Lie No. 3: If it’s handmade, it is high quality.

Go to any local high school shop class woodworking show and you will see a room full of handmade items, but almost none — parental pride aside — would be considered high-quality pieces. Great-great grandpa back on the farm may have made all their furniture, but he probably was a better farmer than he was a cabinetmaker. The surviving pieces may be sentimentally important, and the market may place a high value on their scarcity, folksiness or quaintness, but that does not necessarily mean they are of high quality. On the other hand many high quality pieces have been made by hand over the years but many other high quality pieces were machine made.

Lie No. 4: If it’s handmade, it’s old.

The lower segment of the furniture import business would like you to believe this, but furniture is still being made by hand all over the world. Some of it is quite good, some of it is exceptional, but none of it is old.

Lie No. 5: If it’s old, it’s good.

Unfortunately, poor quality acknowledges no particular time period. Lesser pieces have always been made, whether by hand or in a factory, to meet certain market demands, or because of inferior skills or raw material. Some designs are lesser designs, whether they were devised in the 18th century or the 21st century. For proof of that, take a look at Albert Sack’s book “Fine Points of Furniture,” where he euphemistically compares the “good, better and best.” Here you will see that “good” is a very relative term.

Lie No. 6: If it is an old style, it is an old piece.

Many novice dealers and collectors tend to think a piece is old if they see the same style in an antiques publication. Unfortunately, certain classic styles have been in more-or-less continuous production since their introduction. It could be fairly difficult for many people — dealers or collectors — to tell the difference, for example, between a Philadelphia Chippendale chair made in 1775 from a good Centennial reproduction made in 1880 from a well-designed and executed imported chair made in 1999. This is especially true if the design elements are comparatively the same in scale and depth. On a more modest note, some people are confused by Depression-era revivals of 17th-century styles, such as Jacobean and William and Mary. And remember that Queen Anne styling has been around for 400 years. Style is very seldom the clue to age.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com.

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or info@furnituredetective.com.


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