Antique Furniture: Fake, Reproductions and Revivals

The study of antique furniture, like virtually every other area of sincere endeavor, has its own very specialized language that permeates all the nooks and crannies of the field, whether it be collecting, buying and selling, restoration or just vicarious interest. Much of the vocabulary is self explanatory when taken in the context of  antiques, but some terms need a little closer attention. Three terms often heard loosely bandied about the trade are “fake,” “reproduction” and “revival.” Each has its meaning in the real world and each has its own special meaning in the world of antiques.

The “Pocket Webster School & Office Dictionary” defines fake as “a fraud or hoax; counterfeit.” The “American College Dictionary” defines it as “designed to deceive or cheat.” That pretty much covers it, doesn’t it? Or does it? Are there degrees of fake? In her deeply informative but still witty book  “Fake, Fraud or Genuine?”  Myrna Kaye takes a close look at the first item on her “Most Unwanted List” the object entirely made fake, built from scratch to fool you. Her prime example is the “17th century” Pilgrim chair in the Henry Ford Museum. The chair was made in the 1920s by a disgruntled wood sculptor with the express goal of fooling the experts. It worked. Even after the hoax was revealed to the Museum, it took another four years of study to verify the fake.

But what about other types of “fakes”? Ms. Kaye’s second example on her list is the “Old Parts/New Object” category. This type of reconstruction is of growing concern in today’s market. In some cases this type of fraud is even more difficult to spot than the the entire fake because some or most of the parts are genuinely old. Its just a matter of how they have been reassembled among new parts to create another object. One example of this is the partial disassembly of five chairs, salvaging enough genuine pieces to construct the sixth chair and put some new parts in all the other chairs. The result is a matching set of six chairs, all with some obvious and presumably honest repairs but with enough genuine parts to pass as the real thing.

There are other culprits on Ms. Kaye’s “Unwanted List,” such as the “Made Up Set” and the “The Remade Object” to name only a couple. But they all have one thing in common, which turns out to be the definition of fake: They are all made to fool. It seems that motive, not method is the determining factor of a fake.

Woodworking Magazine 2004-2009 - Issues 1-16If a fake is meant to fool then what is a “reproduction”? Again the dictionaries provide us with a starting point but don’t quit get the “antique” gist of the word. The standard definitions all revolve around the words “copy” and “duplicate,” but very few furniture reproductions are exact copies not to mention duplicates.

Most of the reproduction furniture we are likely to see is 20th century American manufactured furniture. An honest reproduction, while having the same overall look as the original, will have its own distinguishing characteristics, some good and some not so good. One of the more obvious distinctions of a 20th century reproduction is the use of modern manufacturing techniques. A prime example is the machine-made dovetail joint used in drawers. Dovetail joints have been used for several hundred years but modern, continuous dovetails are superior to older, handmade ones for sheer strength. Another modern technique is the use of five-layer veneer. Both the reproduction and the period Empire chest may have a mahogany veneered surface, but the period piece is veneered over a single solid core. If the core moves over time the veneer telegraphs the movement and maybe even cracks. The modern veneer is the fifth layer in a wood sandwich in which each layer is at a 90-degree angle to the previous layer. This sandwich generally will not move or warp and the veneer is safer from the effects of shrinkage.

On the other hand, the machine done or applied carving and trim seen on most modern reproductions is not as crisp, deep or detailed as hand work. Since the advent of aniline dyes around the turn of the 20th century, wood selection is not as critical as it once was because poplar can now look like mahogany and birch can pass as walnut.

In short a reproduction is not an exact copy of the original. It takes on a life of its own through technology and the interpretation of styles and becomes its own separate entity with ties to the past. An excellent reference book on this subject is Emil Jenkins’ “Reproduction Furniture.”

So what is a “revival”? According to the “Field Guide to American Antique Furniture” by Butler, after the Revolution, American furniture fell under the influence of “revivalism” — the borrowing of detail or even the entire design of a previously popular style. Major revivals of the 19th century included Neoclassicism (Greco-Roman), Gothic, Rococo, Louis XVI and Renaissance. Perhaps the greatest revival is the one known as the “Centennial Revival” beginning in the 1870s, producing 19th century versions of 18th century classics. This revival continued well into the 20th century and some contend that it continues today and will extend into the 21st century. It seems that a revival then, is a widespread movement dealing with the resurrection of a particular style or period and does not necessarily refer to a specific piece of furniture.

These three words are important parts of our furniture vocabulary and should be used cautiously and precisely.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or
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 or fax 352-563-2916.

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