Antique Painted Furniture: Points of Connoisseurship

Antique Painted Furniture

Genuine 18th and 19th Century painted furniture is nearly impossible to find these days. Fairly common, though, is painted furniture purporting to be authentic. Dealers who sell such furniture as authentic usually don't intend to commit fraud; many of them have simply been fooled by clever reproductions. The craft persons who created such reproductions normally didn't intend to commit fraud, either; they only wanted to do a good job recreating the right "antique look" on the furniture they were refurbishing.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take much to fool a buyer who is looking for a good deal on a rare find. Enthusiasm (or greed) sometimes leads to a perfunctory inspection, which can lead to mistakes in identification. Even appraisers are sometimes fooled: if a reproduction incorporates the points of connoisseurship that one expects to see on an authentic piece, it is sometimes construed to be "the real thing". Such purchases wind up being part of family folklore, and generations can pass before mistakes are uncovered.

How then, can owners and/or buyers of "antique painted furniture" confidently inspect a piece and determine if it is an authentic 18th or 19th Century item? The four-step system below can help immensely. Of course, I make no guarantees: Museums and collections are filled with fakes and frauds created by clever forgers. Buyers can take comfort, though, in the knowledge that truly magnificent forgeries are so difficult and time-consuming to produce that hardly anyone makes the effort anymore. Most furniture doesn't bring prices that are worthy of the effort; accomplished forgers will apply their talents to more profitable pursuits. If you're buying antique furniture at estate sales, antique stores, show, or fairs, the method outlined below will serve you well.

Authenticating antique furniture is largely a sensory experience. Your tools will be sight, touch, and smell. I've known appraisers who also use taste and sound as verification techniques, but rarely on furniture. A hand-held ultraviolet is helpful, but not required.

  1. Begin with an assessment of the furniture itself: are the joinery, hardware, and construction techniques consistent with what you would expect to find on furniture of the period? In many cases, a quick glance is all you need: staples, butt-joints, fiberboard or particle board indicates a modern piece. If you find hand-cut drawer dovetails, handmade screws, doweling or advanced joinery, you may have found a treasure. All antique furniture buyers should know the basics of furniture identification. Though that topic is well beyond the scope of this article, a couple of great resources are Fred Taylor's "How to be a Furniture Detective" (my personal favorite)

Of course, if you suspect that a piece is authentic, having the original painted finish is critical to its value. Extend your inspection to include the finish by employing the following steps:

  1. Inspect visually to determine if wear patterns are natural or artificial.
    • Wear-through: As you view an item, ask yourself how it would be used. On shelves, where would you place items? Are those spots worn? As you place an item, does your hand hit or miss the shelf edge? On chairs, would your feet rest on the leg stretchers? Would your hands rest on the end of chair arms? Are finishes around door or drawer pulls worn? Paint will be worn wherever contact is made: wood may be exposed through chips, scratches, or wear – but only where contact is likely to have been made. If shelf edges or leg stretchers are worn from one end to the other, the wear pattern is likely artificial.
    • Crazing (or alligatoring) occurs as paint hardens. Wooden surfaces beneath the paint expand and contract with changes in heat and humidity, and when paint hardens enough to lose its flexibility it begins to pull apart, leaving an "alligator skin" appearance. Alligatoring commonly occurs wherever sunlight or heat reaches the paint. Crazing might occur on one side of a cabinet but not the other, or on the front of a chair but not the back. If an item appears to be crazed or crackled all over, it is likely artificially induced.
    • Where is the dirt? Dirt and dust will naturally build up in cracks and crevices. Finish cracks created by crazing will show dirt buildup, as will molding and carved figures. But, dirt will accumulate unevenly; some areas will appear darker than others. Again, if the dirt in crazing is the same all over, it is likely artificial.
    • Whenever repairs are made to a piece, the new finish is blended -in to match the original finish. Blend-ins are visible when viewed under an ultraviolet light (aka U.V. or black light), because new paint fluoresces differently than fully cured, old paint.
    • Carefully look at scratches and dents. Dents from artificial distressing will be filled with paint, whereas natural dents and scratches will go through the finish and expose the wood.
  2. Rub your hand over all painted surfaces. The densest concentration of nerve receptors in a human body is in the fingertips; you'd be amazed at what your fingers can reveal about an antique. Touch can reveal over-paints and in-paints, repairs, spliced and scarfed wood repairs, and filled nail holes. Paint will conform to whatever is underneath, so old peeled paint and chips in an original finish can be felt underneath new paint. Paint is a reactive finish; it does not dry by solvent evaporation. As paint dries, the molecules bind together to form a single-layer polymer. This polymer continues to harden for years. The relative age of a finish can be tested by pushing a thumbnail into the finish (in an inconspicuous spot, of course). If the finish is new, your thumbnail will leave a dent.
  3. Don't be afraid to put your nose to the wood and smell it. Wood is porous so it absorbs odors; your nose can tell you if a piece has been kept in a barn, basement or attic or if it is smoke damaged. New paint can be detected as well. However a piece smells when you inspect it is how it will smell when you get it home. Mold, mildew, cigarette smoke, perfume, and other odors will linger and be very difficult to get rid of; that's why it's best to avoid Thrift and Antique shops that smell like mildew.

If you find an authentic 18th or 19th Century painted piece that presents clues that it has been repainted, repaired, or touched up, don't be fooled into paying a high price for it. Although we personally believe that, in some cases, proper refinishing or restoring can enhance the value of an authentic piece, they will never be worth what an authentic, original-condition piece is worth.

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