Ever since old furniture began to attract high prices, there have been
people - some highly skilled, others crude tricksters - who have been prepared to boost their income by fooling buyers.
Reproductions of classic pieces and pastiches of historical styles have been part of the furniture trade almost since it began. In the 19th century, in fact, such pieces made up the great bulk of what was made. They weren't sold as genuine old furniture, but other pieces were, and still are, sold which definitely pretend to be what they are not.
There are three types to be on the look out for. Fakes have been made in an old style, then distressed to make them look old. Alterations are old pieces that have been reworked in some way to make them appear more valuable, while marriages join parts of two old, damaged pieces to make one 'perfect' antique.
With altered and married pieces there may have been no attempt at
fraud or faking - the furniture may have been altered to make it fit new surroundings - and such pieces can be interesting and attractive in their own right. Furniture dealers selling altered or married pieces will usually make it plain that that is what they are selling, and will price them accordingly. However, it's best to be on your guard, especially when considering expensive Georgian and Regency furniture - nobody goes to the trouble of faking a piece unless they expect to get a good price for it.
The best way to spot fakes is to learn the techniques fakers use to simulate age. Period pieces that have been
well used and looked after acquire a soft surface character or 'patina' that is
hard to reproduce. Fakers simulate patinas with stains. Look at any part of a piece that was not intended to he on view, such as under a table. On genuine pieces you should see dry, raw wood, slightly darkened with age, and without a hint of a stain.
Old pieces always show some signs of wear. There are many ways of faking this, from peppering an oak coffer with shotgun blasts to simulate worm damage to kicking a chair around a workshop.
If part of the piece moves, centuries of use should have left recognizable traces that are virtually impossible to fake. On drop-leaf tables, look for the curved track where the support has rubbed the underside of the leaf. Look for projecting nail or screw heads or tenon joints in a tip-top table, and see if there is a corresponding mark on the underside of the table top.
Fakes may give themselves away by lack of attention to detail. Any machine-cut veneers or dovetails on an '18th-century' piece will be wrong, for instance. Sometimes a minor error betrays a piece. Look at a drawer. If there is quadrant beading - a small, quarter round moulding - along the join between the sides and bottom, it wasn't made in the 18th century.
Alterations are not always easy to spot, especially if they are minor; a little recarving, perhaps, or some new veneer. Sometimes, though, furniture is completely changed. Cabinets and bureaux, in particular, may have been cut down to make them shorter and narrower, then reveneered, changing them from worthy but plain pieces into very desirable ones.
Such alterations always alter the
proportions of a piece. They never quite look right. The top drawer on cut-down chests is always too deep, while
shallow top drawers suggest a chest was once the top of a tallboy.
If you think the width of a chest has been reduced, pull out one of the drawers and look at the dovetails on the sides.
Cabinetmakers used to cut several sets of dovetails at the same time, so both sides of the drawer should be the same.
Country pieces in oak or other woods may have been reveneered in walnut to make them seem valuable. Genuine, early 18th-century veneers will
probably have cracked or lifted in places You should always be suspicious of pristine veneers on Georgian pieces, and try to get a good look at the carcase wood.
Look inside the drawers to see if a handle has been replaced. Unless the piece has been reveneered, any holes should also appear at the front.
Plain pad feet may be recarved into the more desirable ball and claw, but there is rarely enough wood on a pad foot to make a convincing job of it. The claw should be thick and strong, and have a good grip on the ball. Avoid thin and skimpy examples.
A common ruse is to convert plain tripod tables into ones with more desirable pie-crust tops. Original pie crusts were made in a single piece. Any joint between the crust and the table top means it was added later. By the same token, a very thin top within a pie crust suggests it it has been carved out later.
Side chairs can be made more valuable by adding arms, but these chairs tend to look out of proportion; the front seat rails of 18th-century side chairs were usually S7.5cm12-3in shorter than armed chairs.
A particularly lucrative form of alteration was to convert plain wardrobes, which rarely sell well, into expensive glass-fronted bookcases. Look carefully at the glass fronts. Early glass is distinctive, thin and uneven, and most genuine bookcases will have some original panes intact.
The glazing bars were inset to the frame in originals, while altered pieces may have them glued to it or even stuck over a sheet of glass. As a final check, look inside for incongruous scuff marks and for any holes left when wardrobe hooks were removed.
Marriages are commonest in pieces of furniture that are legitimately made in two parts, such as a tripod table, a secretaire-bookcase, a chest-on-chest, a chest on stand, a tallboy or a china cabinet on stand. A good marriage can defeat all but the expert. Both pieces may be old, and they may
have been together a long time.
When buying 'two-part' furniture, make sure the pieces match both in the colour of their veneer and in their decorative style; they should have the same colour and type of stringing or banding, inlay, and so on.
Look at the hidden parts of the piece. Although some carcase wood may legitimately be paler than the rest, generally speaking two different shades of wood on the same piece should set the alarm bells ringing.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
• The diameter of a tripod table top should more or less equal the spread of the feet. If it doesn't, suspect a marriage.
• The carcase and drawer fronts of 18th century chests were made of
pine. Beware of veneered chests with oak drawer fronts (oak sides and bases are OK) or
• Check around the head of nails for signs of authentic rust staining.
• Machine-made screws indicate a 19th century or later date.
• Late 18th century drawers had four or more neat dovetails a side.
Earlier ones have as few as two, and they tend to be coarsely cut.
• Be careful at furniture auctions, where pieces are sold as seen.
• Trust your instincts. If a piece doesn't feel right, don't buy it.