Are the sales tags on your antique furniture full of facts or fibs?

This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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A tag that really counts: an original furniture company tag, as shown on this American oak “cowboy desk” (below), which was sold Sept. 10, 2011, by Fontaine’s Auction Gallery for $125.

by Fred Taylor

One of my favorite pastimes, of course, is looking at and for antique furniture. One of my second favorites is reading the tags people put on antique furniture in an effort to sell it. Often, these can be much more entertaining than the furniture itself.
Ideally, there are several important pieces of information that a truly enlightening tag should carry, but that is seldom the case. Those tidbits of information should include the form of the piece, the style, the wood, the age, any embellishments or unusual features, attribution (the maker or manufacturer), if known, and the price.

Form
That seems self explanatory, but the real names of objects can enhance their value and add to the buyer’s overall knowledge. There are differences among a vanity, a dresser and a chest with a mirror, and they are important. A canterbury is a much nicer name than “old magazine rack,” and a nice Arts and Crafts piece should be called a “settle” instead of a couch. Form does count.

Style
In some cases, the style is not important or indeterminate, but that is not often the case. Correct identification of the style can help verify the age or origin of a piece and may even help support the price. Mislabeling of styles is commonplace, and the most common error is the use of “Victorian.” “Victorian” is used to refer to the era between 1837 and 1901 when Victoria reigned as Queen of England. It was not a style. There were myriad styles, most of them “revivals” during the Victorian era, and they were all different. You can get style points for correct identification.

Wood
This is perhaps the most difficult category for most people — dealers and buyers alike. It really can be difficult to tell old, brown mahogany from walnut, or old, air-dried red walnut from mahogany. How many people can actually tell the differences among oak, elm and ash? Many people think all light woods are pine and all red woods are cherry. Actually, there are only about seven basic woods and their sub-families commonly used in furniture. They are walnut, mahogany, cherry, oak, maple, pine and the close-grain fillers like gum, poplar and birch. Correct wood identification often can verify the authenticity of a period piece.

Age
This is key and goes directly to the heart of what is an antique and what is just old furniture. Since very few pieces actually have dates on them (there are a few) dating to a specific year is almost impossible, and most people settle for a range of years or a “period.” Use of the word “circa,” meaning “about,” covers up a lot of uncertainty but is perfectly acceptable in narrowing down the possibilities to just a few years. Its use is preferable to a strictly arbitrary date without substantial supporting evidence.

Embellishments
Items that might be missed altogether or need to have special attention drawn to them fall in this category.

Hidden document drawers or concealed spaces are common embellishments. Signatures, date stamps, patent dates and foundry emblems are all examples of embellishments or special features. So are working locks with original keys, original hardware and original old glass.

Attribution
It is impossible to attribute most older and antique furniture to a specific person or company, but some pieces are marked, and if they are that should be noted. Even later manufacturers’ labels are important. A Kittinger mahogany chair is certainly more interesting than just a chair, and a Berkey & Gay emblem can double the selling price of an early 20th-century bedroom set. Even proper regional or geographical attributions, such as “Appalachian” or “Grand Rapids,” can add interest and value to a piece.

Price
Naturally, an informative tag should carry the price of the piece. Sometimes, its written in code so that you have to ask the proprietor, thus initiating a conversation about the piece, but my guess is that it quells as many sales as it makes. If a piece is fairly marked and the price is adequately supported by the evidence of all the preceding information, then the owner’s asking price should be clearly displayed on the tag.

Those are the major things that should be on an informative furniture tag. Here are some of the things I have actually seen:

  • Early 1800s Eastlake” — Unlikely. Charles Locke Eastlake was an English architect whose book, “Hints on Household Taste,” was published in 1865, and his style was not popular until the 1870s.
  • Solid mahogany chest” — Open up the first drawer and take a look at the poplar drawer front.
  • Hand carved oak headboard” — The tiny nails in the “carvings” attest to the fact that they are applied molding.
  • 200-year-old, hand-carved, Renaissance Revival bed” — Renaissance Revival was mid-19th century. It has another 50 years to go to turn 200. And most Renaissance Revival furniture was factory made, not hand carved.

Just a few facts can turn “tagging” — going antiquing just to read the labels — into a hobby all by itself. Enjoy!

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.

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