When I first got into this business I was making mistakes all the time. Larry of course, was in it much longer than I, and was constantly pointing out the areas of ‘newness’ or ‘fakeness’ that had tricked me.
Almost nothing gets by me now. It took years to train my eye, so don’t expect to become a ‘pro’ after reading my blog. I will point out things to watch for, but a trained eye will always have an edge over someone who is a novice.
TRUST YOUR SOURCE
This may sound odd, but the first thing I consider when looking at a piece is who or where am I getting it from. There are people and venues I trust, and those that I don’t.
That doesn’t mean I let my guard down completely, but I can relax a little more. However, this is not always the case.
I remember trusting this one dealer. I had bought many things from him the past and been pleased with my purchases. That is, until I bought what I thought was an old 19th Century wooden Chandelier. It looked gorgeous. I thought it was a wooden hand carved ‘Italian’ piece from the 19th Century or earlier. It was red on gold and really stunning.
He had it hanging quite high in his warehouse and I asked if it was old. He said it was. So I bought it quickly without any hesitation, trusting him at his word.
It wasn’t until it arrived in Vancouver that I discovered the grim reality. It was a fake, a big fat fake. The worst kind. An expensive fake. I had paid a lot for this piece and I would have had to retail it for around $5000.
Not only was it new, it was plaster painted to look like wood. And broken to boot! Unfixable, unsellable ( except for a huge loss ) and unbearable.
Mistakes like that cost me big time. Not only in money, but also in sourcing. It’s hard to find honest Antique dealers anywhere, but particularly in France. And now, with the economic crises it’s become much worse. You really have to know what you’re doing.
I called the French dealer who duped me, and had a heated exchange with the guy. He told me I never asked if it was old. That’s the thing I hate the most. Challenging my intelligence. I knew what I had asked and I am not that old that my memory’s slipping that much.
Suffice it to say, I never bought a thing from him again.
I would have let it go if he had offered me a refund or credit, and above all not challenged my mental faculties.
But refunds in France ( except in large department stores ) are unheard of. NOTHING is exchangeable.
So trusting the source is paramount on my list.
Larry and I did a Research trip around the world about 6 years ago. We purchased an around the world airline ticket so stopped in many ports of call. Buenos Aires was the first stop, Thailand was the last.
We saw so many reproductions in Thailand that I seriously have no idea what a real Thai antique would look like. We liked Buenos Aires but decided we couldn’t trust the shipper and heard horror stories of complete containers disappearing without a trace.
In Bangkok, we hired a guide took us to some antique dealers who didn’t have one piece that was old. In fact several dealers were selling the same thing, the EXACT identical piece all claiming it was old. Like these chairs featured in the photo. Every dealer had this exact same chair, and upon closer examination all these chairs were NEW.
This same guide insisted on taking us to stupid things like jewelry dealers and tailors who virtually pounced on us like unsuspecting lambs. The guide insisted that we get clothing made, and buy jewelry, because he got a kickback. Needless to say, we cut our tour short and bolted for our Hotel.
Frankly, the poverty and child begging was so disturbing that we could hardly wait to get out of Bangkok. My impression of Thailand, particularly Bangkok was not good to say the least. We are truly blessed to live in Canada.
OVERALL APPEARANCE OF THE PIECE
Second most important thing after trust, is the overall appearance of the piece. If it looks too perfect there must be something wrong. Perfection in a piece is not a good sign unless it’s very very expensive. Something in fabulous condition is rare and you and I will pay a good penny for perfection.
Antiques are old, and age does things to furniture. Age warps, splits, and wears down wood, etc. You want to see all that when you buy something. It’s called the ‘patina’
That doesn’t mean because it’s warped it’s old. Warping can come from new furniture not being aged properly. I mean a warp, like on an old table that is solid plank.
Splitting usually occurs on solid woods as well. It’s almost inevitable that a split will occur on anything that’s solid wood and over 100 years old. In fact, you should seek out splits. They’re a good thing, and do not harm the integrity of the piece.
Real antiques are imperfect and the flaws are inconsistent due to natural use and human construction. Reproductions are symmetrical, smooth and the flaws are contrived rather than authentic.
WOOD: Look under chairs and drawers, anywhere unexposed, to see if those parts are constructed with a different type of wood than the rest of the piece. Real antiques are usually made with more than one type of wood. In the past, carpentry materials were harder to obtain, and it didn’t make sense to use expensive wood in places where no one would see it. On the other hand, reproductions tend to be made from the same type of wood from top-to-bottom.
SIGNS OF WEAR: Genuine antiques will show signs of wear in places that would naturally sustain the most contact. For example, the bottom end of chair arms should be more worn than the upper part or underside of the arm. Scratches, stains and dents will be unevenly distributed on a piece whose flaws are the result of normal use. If the patina is too perfect, there’s a good chance it’s a reproduction.
CONSTRUCTION: The use of modern materials like fibreboard, staples and Phillips screws all indicate a reproduction.
GLUING: Older antiques have reinforced joints in addition to gluing. Look for dowels, mortise or tenon. If a piece is exclusively attached by glue, then it might be a reproduction.
ODOR: Real antiques will smell musty and sometimes mildewed. Reproductions might smell fresh with the scent of the wood still discernible
Chinese antiques are among the worst to determine authenticity. Absolutely a nightmare in some cases. Dealers will have a real Antique, then break it in parts, and re attached the severed parts to several new pieces to create several ‘antiques’ instead of just one. They know where a specialist will scrape or flake a tiny piece to see if it’s old. They do this even to sculptures. You know those lovely Chinese terracotta horses you see. 99% are not old. Decorative but not old.
I remember having a client introduced to me as a ‘Chinese Collector’ with lots of money and interest in collecting high quality antiques. I spent tons of time with this guy, emailing him photos from Parisian dealers I knew, touring with him, showing him my sources ( in Vancouver ). We went to a store, Panache, who is owned by a lovely dealer Joan Bilchik who is an expert in the area. He hummed and hawed at her pieces but said nothing. I asked him after we had left if he liked anything she had and he said he’d think about and suggested that some things were probably fake.
I asked Joan about the authenticity of her collection and she assured me they were all authentic. I know Joan so I know she was telling the truth.
Then this same client and I went to an auction to see some Chinese antiques. The auction house had evaluated one particular piece for $50,000. It was a Chinese scroll painted by a Chinese artist. The client told me it was a fake and wasn’t worth more than $200.
I immediately called the owner and alerted him to what this supposed ‘collector’ and expert client of mine had said. He was frantic, turned the whole place upside down trying to authenticate the piece. Turns out it was real.
I felt like a complete ‘you know what’, and immediately dropped this client. That was the end of my dealing with individual Chinese collectors. Please don’t get me wrong. I do have some lovely Chinese clients who do buy furniture, not necessarily Chinese Antiques, but are great clients whom we have a great relationship with. It’s just that there are so many fake Chinese antiques out there that it boggles the mind. And even the experienced dealers have a difficult time separating the real from the fake.
We come across Antique Chinese furniture in France and if we are lucky enough to get it at a good price we buy it. Other than that, real Chinese antiques are few, rare and very expensive.
Any dealer who claims to have ‘real’ Chinese antiques at a cheap price is lying through his teeth. They DO NOT exist.
This photograph on the left is example of ‘Chinese Antiques’ that simply are not old.
I hope this week’s blog helps shed some light on the tricky business of fakes vs. real Antiques.
You’re best bet… leave the spotting of fakes to the pros. They can do it with ease now so you don’t have too. If you trust your dealer, that’s all you should concern yourself with.