Furniture Detective: Having an old style doesn’t guarantee that it’s antique furniture

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by Fred Taylor

Aging with style is everyone’s ultimate objective, immediately behind not aging at all. But in this context the word “aging” is used as a verb to try to answer the most often-asked question about most antiques and collectibles (especially furniture): How old is it?

The most tempting thing in the world is to grab a book with pictures of old furniture and find one that is “exactly like” the piece you are considering purchasing. “There it is, right there in living color! That proves it, right?” Not exactly.

A quick look at a “Chippendale” chair immediately identifies it as Chippendale: It has a pierced splat, a dog-eared crest rail, cabriole legs with acanthus carving on the knees and claw and ball feet. All the elements of classical Chippendale styling are present.

And what have you learned about the chair from this observation? Nothing; except that the elements of a particular style are indeed present. But that doesn’t tell us anything about the age of a given chair.

18th century Chippendale chair  This Chippendale chair dates to circa 1760; however, there are a countless number of amazingly similar examples that are much newer. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor.

Since Chippendale is one of those classical styles that seems to fit in a great many situations, it has been in more or less continuous production since its introduction in the mid 18th century. Thomas Chippendale basically added some embellishments, piercings, ruffles and flourishes to a Queen Anne-styled background and produced his own namesake characterization.

There are people (mostly art historians) who purport to be able to tell the age of a chair by the angle of the foot or the rake of the back. But when you get right down to it, they, like the rest of us, have to date a piece the old fashioned way, looking for a series of clues like tool marks, joinery, oxidation, patina, etc., to tell us how old the piece is. In most cases, style is just the pleasing arrangement and decoration of the parts – nothing more.

It is entirely possible that a talented woodworker of any era could look at a picture of a given Chippendale and reproduce it exactly, down to the finest detail of angle of the foot and rake of the back.

What he can’t reproduce is all the little things that occur randomly in the building of a chair from a different time. The sharpness of a chisel cut made by the honed edge of an 18th century blade is hard to recreate. The oxidation pattern of a partially exposed inside rail is difficult to duplicate with stain. The random strokes of a tired apprentice with a jack plane are indeed random.

After the initial glance at the Chippendale chair, what we can say for sure is that the chair is made “in the style of” Chippendale. That says nothing about the age – only the form. “In the style of” is not the same as “of the period,” which means it comes from the original period when the style or form was introduced.

Does that mean that style can never be of service in determining the age of a piece of furniture? No. It only points out that many of the traditional furniture styles, Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal, Regency and even Arts and Crafts, among others, have been continuously copied through the years to the point where they are not indicative of age. Certain other styles, however, are unique to a given period or have been more selectively reproduced.

Most of these more or less unique styles came from the 19th century, which, interestingly enough, was the time of the great revival styles. Ideas from centuries past regained popularity in the Victorian Era. Among these was Gothic Revival, recreating the trefoils and arches of the 16th century and Rococo Revival, emulating the French court of the 18th century. This revival of styles produced some variations of the styles that became unique to themselves and have not been reproduced in significant quantity since their original popularity waned.

Among these is the medieval simplicity of the designs of the English architect and early proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Eastlake. His original straight line designs and simple chip carving decorations were extremely compatible with the integration of furniture making into the machine-driven factory system of post Civil War America. His designs were taken to wanton excess and reproduced endlessly in the late 19th century. The result has been that they have not been extensively reproduced in the intervening 100 years and it is safe to say that a piece “in the style of” Eastlake is also “of the period.” A useful concept in aging with style.

Another instance of a style standing on it own is Renaissance Revival. This was a mid 19th century resurrection of mostly Italian Renaissance themes from the 15th and 16th centuries. Again the factory system played a major part in the popularity of this style, making it the predominant theme of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

This “battleship” furniture, so-called because of its size, featured large scale architectural elements like pediments and columns and furnished many of the grand hotels and palaces of the Eastern industrial/financial complex. It also has not been reproduced and can be considered “of the period.”

Style can be useful when used as one of the clues to determining the age of a piece of furniture, but only in rare instances can it be used as the only clue.

Fred Taylor  Fred Taylor, Furniture Detective

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or visit Fred’s website. 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.

 More valuable information from Furniture Detective Fred Taylor:

• Bringing antique furniture back to life without stripping
• Can I buy the original patina antiques dealers use? Sorry, come back in 100 years
• Willett Furniture: Once a regional favorite, its popularity is spreading
• Furniture Detective: Appreciating veneer


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