Furniture Fakes: When furniture isn't as it appears

Much has been written in the last few years about furniture fakes in the antiques trade. Here's a discussion of some of the fakery and fake finishes.
Author:
Publish date:

Furniture fakes in the antiques trade

This late Victorian, Empire Revival parlor arm chair is made with a wide birch frame and is stained with a mahogany finish. It sold for $71 at EBTH.com. Courtesy of Everything But The House, www.ebth.com

This late Victorian, Empire Revival parlor arm chair is made with a wide birch frame and is stained with a mahogany finish. It sold for $71 at EBTH.com. Courtesy of Everything But The House, www.ebth.com

Much has been written in the last few years about fakes in the antiques trade since the “antique factory” in Chilham, Kent, England was revealed to have been turning out furniture in the style of the great cabinetmakers since 1992. The owner of the factory noted that some of his work had been offered by dealers for as much as £525,000, over $685,000 at today’s exchange rates. Noting that he sometimes built pieces from scratch or used an original piece as a blank canvas to enhance with materials from old wardrobes, paneling and planks, he said he would call his works “inventions” or “fakes,” not real antiques as they were described by the dealers who tried to sell them.

A story in April 2008 in the Sunday Times, London described how the “manufacturer” created “period” treasures from “breakers,” old furniture from which to scavenge parts, enhanced with fancy veneers, the right mounts and creative molding and sold them to a favorite dealer. Of course none of this revelation sat well with the legitimate antiques trade or with the British Antique Dealer’s Association, which says an antique should be in “substantially the same condition as when originally made” and “not added to or altered in any material extent.”

How fake is it?

The color variations in this “walnut” table pedestal indicate that it is actually made of red gum that was originally stained to look like walnut. (Fred Taylor photo)

The color variations in this “walnut” table pedestal indicate that it is actually made of red gum that was originally stained to look like walnut. (Fred Taylor photo)

So it seems there may be degrees of fakery and deception and some furniture fakes are more fake than others. And does motivation figure into it? A well known case of making a fake in the United States is discussed by Myrna Kaye in her book “Fake, Fraud or Genuine?” (Little, Brown & Co., 1990). That was the case of a frustrated woodworker who set out to make a fake and make a fool out of a museum. It worked. He made such a convincing 17th century Pilgrim’s chair in the 1920s that the museum refused to accept it as a fake even after he documented its construction. In that case the fake was created with a personal agenda in mind.

A case where fakery was done simply for the money was an example pointed out by dealer and author David Lindquist in the late 1990s. He revealed that an antique Queen Anne cabinet was in fact a moderately good fake from England. Represented as the real thing the cabinet had sold at auction for $26,000. Had the piece been presented as a newly built reproduction it would have sold in the $8,000 range. The $18,000 difference was the faker’s premium. But $18,000 really is not a lot of money for such painstakingly detailed work. What about other approaches to making a fake?

When an original antique was used in the Kent factory as the base to enhance with additional ornamentation, at what point did it become a “fake”? How much can be added or subtracted to alter a piece so much that it is no longer considered original but is now a fake? One rule of thumb I have heard bantered about, primarily by English dealers, is that no more than 20 percent of a piece can be altered to be considered original.

Example: Broken set of chairs

borax chest fake furniture finish

This chest of drawers is made of an inferior secondary wood that has the designs printed on it. It is called “borax” furniture. (Swedberg photo)

Like most “rules of thumb” that leaves quite a bit of space for speculation. Consider the case of the broken set of chairs. There once were six chairs in the set. One chair was lost, discarded or otherwise disposed of somewhere down the line and a set of five chairs is rather awkward. A good furniture professional can easily take an original part here and there from each of the five chairs and then make enough new pieces to assemble a complete sixth chair. It will have 80 percent original pieces from the set. And what about the remaining chairs? Each chair can have enough new pieces made for it to be a complete chair yet still be 80 percent original. So instead of five 100 percent original chairs we now have six 80 percent original chairs. Would the set be considered original under the 80 percent rule or is it now a “fake” set, an “assembled” set or an “altered” set?

Example: Replacement crown

In another case I was requested by a customer to make a missing piece for a family heirloom. The heirloom was a mid nineteenth century Late Classicism armoire with removable crown and KD (knock down) construction. Apparently while in the possession of another relative the crown had been removed to accommodate a low ceiling. When the relative moved the crown was left behind. Fortunately my customer had a photo of the complete cabinet I could use as a model for the replacement crown. I constructed the crown of poplar and easily duplicated the cyma curve of the molding. What I couldn’t find was the right piece of crotch cut mahogany veneer to use on the crown. The newer flitches just didn’t look the same as the old veneer. So I grain painted it to match. Crotch mahogany is rather easy to grain paint and the finished product, when placed atop the cabinet, was indistinguishable from the photo. Was the armoire now considered to be a fake because such an important part was newly made? Not to the customer.

Furniture Fakes: Faking Materials

None of the striped veneer in this photo is actually wood. It’s printed on paper that is glued to the surface. It is called “veneerite” and was used to decorate Art Moderne pieces of the 1930s. (Fred Taylor photo)

None of the striped veneer in this photo is actually wood. It’s printed on paper that is glued to the surface. It is called “veneerite” and was used to decorate Art Moderne pieces of the 1930s. (Fred Taylor photo)

Deception in one form or another has almost always been a part of the furniture manufacturing process going back as far as the ancient Egyptians. The use of veneer is, after all, an attempt to make something look like something it is not. The ancient Egyptians used veneer to cover for the lack of good lumber within their control. Another form of deception is the use of an inferior wood that has been stained or colored to look like a more expensive wood. In some cases wood substitution was merely a case by case event by individual cabinetmakers to make up for a shortage of or lack of access to better quality material. But late in the nineteenth century this seemingly innocent deception became institutionalized with the advent of aniline dyes.

In 1856 an English chemist by the name of William H. Perkin accidentally produced aniline dye while trying to make quinine from coal tar. The aniline dye turned out to be a great coloring agent for the vibrant hues desired in late Victorian period fabrics. And there the matter rested until late in the century when someone realized that the aniline dye could be used to change the color of wood so hard it would not accept a traditional oil based wiping stain. The introduction of aniline dye to the commercial furniture market meant that expensive, imported mahogany did not have to be used in all applications because the penetrating dye could be used to color less expensive domestic hardwoods such as birch and maple. The highly penetrating, usually water-based aniline dyes solved that problem. In fact, if you have tried to strip and refinish a piece from this period with the water based dye, you know that it strips to “hot pink” and in order to get an even color, your choice is: “What color dark red mahogany do you like?”

This Empire Revival parlor set, circa 1895-1900, is made of solid birch with a “simulated mahogany” finish to match the mahogany veneer in the splats. (Turkey Creek Auction photo)

This Empire Revival parlor set, circa 1895-1900, is made of solid birch with a “simulated mahogany” finish to match the mahogany veneer in the splats. (Turkey Creek Auction photo)

The use of birch as a mahogany substitute became so prevalent around the turn of the twentieth century that Sears decided to turn the deception into a positive marketing tool. Sears, Roebuck & Co. took great pains to promote its use of “non-mahogany” in its 1902 catalogue. In describing a five piece parlor set, its “$17.90 SWELL SUITE,” the text points out “The frames are substantially made of the best selected birch with a fine mahogany finish. ... It gives the same general effect as genuine mahogany and is very much less expensive... and you have the same strength as you would have in genuine mahogany furniture.” Elsewhere the catalogue describes the finish as “simulated mahogany” or “imitation mahogany.” Thus the cat was out of the bag in a big way. By the early 1930s a secondary wood, red gum, was the most frequently used material in furniture construction and it was not always used as drawer sides. It became the primary “face” wood for an entire generation of households thanks to the creative use of aniline dyes.

Borax furniture

One other type of deception in the Depression era also deserves mention. It was the production of so-called “Borax” furniture. Borax furniture was cheaply made of inferior wood and the wood grain was printed directly onto the surface. It was given as a premium for buying borax based laundry products. This was actually just an extension of the process of faking quarter sawn oak developed in 1885 by Harry Sherwood in Grand Rapids. Sherwood used a textured roller to apply a “simulated oak” finish to a smooth, cheap secondary wood. All of this, of course, laid the groundwork for the widest spread furniture hoax in American history with the introduction of the “engraved” finish.

Turns out the engraved finish of the 1980s was a refinement of the borax process. The grain pattern of mahogany or walnut was printed directly onto a secondary background or even directly onto the second greatest hoax in American furniture history: medium density fiberboard, known in the trade as MDF.

So, all things considered, was the production of “fakes” in the English factory any different from the mainstream furniture industry, or was it just in the manner they were presented to prospective buyers?

Antique Trader subscription

This article was originally published in Antique Trader magazine. If you like what you’ve read here, consider subscribing to the print or digital versions of Antique Trader it’s available for $26 per year (print) or $20 per year (digital) to receive 24 issues.
Learn more about subscribing>>>