Furniture Detective: Don’t be led astray by ambiguous antique furniture terms

At an auction I recently attended, one of the items in the catalog was a “Chippendale style, Colonial Revival mahogany china cabinet.” At the preview, it appeared to be a nice piece, not terribly old but in excellent condition with no apparent problems.

However, as I inspected the cabinet from a moderate distance, I heard two different prospective bidders worry about the repair cost if they bought the item. They spent a great deal of time looking at the piece – from the front, from the side and from the rear. One person even got down on her knees for a closer look. I couldn’t stand it. I had to ask her what she was looking for and what she was so concerned about. She pointed out to me that the auctioneer listed right there in the catalog the fact that the cabinet had a “broken pediment” and she wanted to see how badly it was broken and if it could be fixed.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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I didn’t have the heart to explain to her that the term “broken pediment” simply referred to the stylistic element on the top of the cabinet.

broken pediment

The arched top of this china cabinet with an urn finial in the middle is called a “broken pediment” but it doesn’t need any repair.

The term “pediment” comes from classical Greek architecture and originally meant the triangular shape over a door or portico. This architectural element was incorporated into furniture after the Italian Renaissance and made its way into English furniture by the end of the 17th century. By then the triangular shape had been softened to a rounded peak and, in some cases, the line of the pediment was interrupted before it crested. In other words, the pediment was “broken” and most often a finial was installed in the gap created by the break. The auctioneer had correctly listed this classical stylistic element in the catalog without considering the confusion it might create.

This is just one example of a correctly applied term that might cause confusion or concern on the part of those less acquainted with antiques-related terminology. Here are some more.

Old Finish: This is a term used when the auctioneer or gallery is not able to determine or to state unambiguously that the surface is original. The finish might be original; then again, it might not. One thing is certain, however: The finish is old. How old? Nobody can say for sure – just “old.”

Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2013 Price GuideDon’t interpret the term “old finish” to mean “original” finish. It doesn’t imply that at all. The same applies to “old brasses.” The hardware might be original; it might even be contemporaneous with the piece, but the term does not imply that it is “original” to the piece or is as old as the piece – just that it’s “old.”

Hand Carved: This can be particularly misleading. All carving was done by hand before the Industrial Revolution, so saying that a Federal chair is “hand carved” is redundant.

On the other hand, much of the decoration touted as being hand carved appearing on furniture from around the turn of the 20th century is not carved at all but applied. This was especially true during the great Golden Oak period from 1890 to 1920. The molding and decorative swags, vines and curlicues on the tall oak headboards and mirrored sideboards were simply nailed on, not carved from the base stock of the piece.

But right around this same period a useful device called a spindle carver came into general factory use. This piece of machinery, with its multiple cutting heads, followed an originally hand-carved pattern and cut out multiple copies of the original at one time. This type of carving did not have the same crisp look as handwork so the carvings were finished off by the hand of an experienced woodworker.

Even so, this type of carving, found on most 20th century examples, still usually lacks the depth, detail and sharpness of earlier handwork. While “hand carved” may be technically correct in this instance because some manual labor is employed, it is nonetheless misleading, or confusing at best.

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As Found: This term is often interpreted as referring to the pristine condition of a piece. However, “as found” means exactly that: It remains in the condition in which the current owner or consignee found it. It just means the current owner hasn’t done anything to it, but there is no assurance implied or given that the piece is in “original” condition and that nothing has ever been done to it.

Period: This word is often used interchangeably with “antique” or “very old.” How often have you seen something labeled as “period” and wondered exactly what that meant? It means it is from the period in which the style or form of the piece was originally popular after its introduction.

A Queen Anne chair from 1720 is from that part of history known as the Queen Anne period and is, in fact, a “period” piece. It is also antique and very old.

However, an Eastlake chair from 1880 is also from that part of history when Eastlake styling was contemporaneous, so it can be said to be “period” also – but from a “period” a century-and-a-half after Queen Anne.

An Art Deco cabinet from 1930 is “period.” And an Isamu Noguchi “Biomorphic” coffee table manufactured by Herman Miller in 1953 is also period – but neither is an antique and neither is particularly old, as these things go.

In the Style Of: This one, like “As Found,” means literally what it says and it implies nothing further.

A chair said to be “in the style of” or “in the manner of” Thomas Chippendale simply has some or many of the stylistic elements commonly found in Chippendale chairs. This may include a pierced splat, cabriole legs and ball and claw feet, but it says nothing about the age of the chair. It could have been made in 1750, 1850 or 1950 and still correctly said to be “in the style of” Mr. Chippendale.

These are just a few of the antiques related terms that can cause confusion. Be sure you speak the language before you pay the price.

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