At auction, ‘old furniture’ doesn’t always mean ‘antique furniture’

> The definition of antique for furniture — as well as the definition of antique for almost everything else — hinges on three points

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This Empire-period mahogany sideboard, circa 1830, featuring a shaped and carved backsplash with two drawers over three doors sold for $1,400 at Flomaton Auction of Alabama in 2005. It stands 59 inches high by 56 1/2 inches wide by 19 1/4 inches deep.

A topic that invariably generates a lot of heat and a lot less light is the question of what qualifies as an antique. The use of the word itself is a little odd in that it is one of the few words we use to describe an object that doesn’t have anything to do with the physical characteristics of the object.

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There are some diehards who stick to the hundred-year rule, no matter what. That little bit of foolishness is brought to us by the U.S. Customs Service and has little or nothing to do with the real world, in keeping with a long-standing governmental tradition that itself is now well beyond its own definition of “antique.” The Customs Service uses 100 years as the definition of an antique solely to determine if import duties must be paid. So, in fact, that definition is nothing more than a revenue ruling pertaining to imported artifacts and has nothing to do with the quality, collectability or value of an individual item.

So what is the definition of an antique? There are as many definitions of “antique” as there are “experts” on the subject. One of the primary considerations in determining if something is an antique is who wants to know and why. Is it someone trying to justify or increase a price or an appraisal by tacking on the word antique to its description? Is it someone trying to lower a price by using the word antique in a derogatory manner to denote something worn out or no longer useful? Or is it someone just looking for another word for old?

The definition and use of the word antique must always be dependent on the context of the usage and the category of the item being described. Let’s examine a few specific cases.

In the case of radio receivers, I doubt there are any in existence today that would qualify as antique by the hundred-year rule. But I am sure that antique radios exist. So how old does a radio have to be to qualify? The earliest working wireless voice transmission was officially recorded in 1906, but it probably happened earlier than that. However, radio as a social phenomenon did not occur until the 1920s, when it entered families’ homes. Yet none of these units would technically qualify as antique. But you would have a major problem on your hands if you tried to tell that to a member of the Antique Wireless Association.

Automobiles fall in the same category. A relatively new invention as these things go the automobile, as a practical matter has been around for just about a hundred years. But saying that a 1904 REO is not an antique defies reality. Some states even issue “antique” license plates for cars when they reach a certain age, sometimes as young as 25 years.

The same holds true for many of the things invented in the 20th century, such as computers, stereos, microwave ovens, etc. Have you ever seen the original Amana Radar Range? Its about the size of an upright freezer and has its own power supply. If that’s not an antique, then nothing qualifies! And a Commodore 64 computer certainly is archaic enough to be antique.

So, what about furniture? How old does a chair have to be to be referred to as an antique? Furniture is a little more difficult to get a handle on than radios, cars or computers, because it has been around for so long. With the other objects, we know the history of the genre with certainty and are familiar with the technological developments that accompany them.

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But a basic chair hasn’t changed much in design or function in several hundred years. Sure, styles have changed and construction techniques and materials have changed, but isn’t a chair still a chair? For some people, antique furniture has to be from the 18th century. For others, it just has to be before the Industrial Revolution or before the Civil War or before the turn of the 20th century or before World War II or before or after some other arbitrary date or event that is significant only to the people discussing it.

For some people, furniture has to be completely handmade to be an antique, but the amount of handwork involved in the 19th-century American factory system might surprise a lot of experts. Factory made from 1850 is not the same as factory made in 1970. And craftsmen in England continued to do a lot more handwork than was done in America until well into the 20th century, so there has to be room for discussion on that point.

Perhaps in the end, the definition of antique for furniture — as well as the definition of antique for almost everything else — hinges on three points. The artifact, whatever it is, must derive some of its value due primarily to its age; it must be a genuine artifact of the genre; and it must represent the original period of the invention, development or introduction of the object. A Queen Anne chair from 1720 certainly meets all those criteria, but so does a Queen Anne chair from 1925, if the changes in technology are taken into account. A chair from 1925 incorporates some of the new ideas of the period in wood usage, glue technology and finish composition, very few of which are still in use today. Thus, it is as unique in its category as the chair from 1720. And to a collector born in the third or fourth quarter of the 20th century, it is relatively quite old.

So is it an antique? Who wants to know?

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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