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The Queen Anne House
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Queen AnneĖstyle houses are arguably the most charming and picturesque of all Victorians. In this first-ever book on the American Queen Anne style, youíll learn about their places in the history of American architecture.
                                   
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Eyeballing Antique Furniture
by Bob Brooke

 

Thereís no doubt about it. Purchasing antique furniture can be costly. And if you donít watch out, it can leave a mighty big hole in your pocket. So itís important to be careful and not buy a piece you think is worth thousands of dollars, only to find out itís worth next to nothing. The golden rule is never buy an antique until you know for sure that itís authentic.

Though there are a few unscrupulous antique dealers who will try to pull one off on you, the majority are honest and just want to sell their items as soon as possible. The longer a piece of furniture remains in their inventory, the less profit they make on it. While a piece of furniture may sell for more than say a cup and saucer, it takes up valuable floor space, so thereís actually more profit in smaller items.

Because dealers want to move furniture quickly, they often donít do much research on it. Some donít look at it carefully. Of course, how high up the retailers ladder the same venue is, the bettter chance you have of buying an authentic piece. Generally, dealers selling at antique shows do the most research. This is especially true of the ones selling pieces of furniture for five and six figures. They also make sure each piece has a provenance. Those selling out of shops do a little less research, and it depends a lot on the type of furniture theyíre selling. Flea market dealers do little or no research. If you buy your antique furniture at garage and yard sales, you better know what youíre looking at or youíre sure to be taken.

So how can you tell if a piece is authentic? Believe it or not, you need to sharpen your powers of observation. Take a lesson from Sherlock Holmes. He wasnít just playing around with that magnifying glass.

There are several ways you can spot an antique. The first giveaway is the joineryómachine-cut only dates back to 1860. If the piece has drawers, remove a drawer and look closely where the front and back of the drawer connects to the sides of the drawer. Not all pieces made before 1860 had dovetail joints on drawers. Those that did had only a few, and these weren't even. New dovetails are either machine-made or much narrower than the wide, up-to-3/8-inch dovetails of the 1800s. Machine-cut dovetails are precise.

Be sure to look carefully at the bottom, sides, and back of the drawer. Cabinetmakers made these from solid wood, often of the same type as the exterior of the piece. If the wood shows nicks or cuts, they probably cut these pieces with a plane, a spokeshave, or a drawknife. Straight saw marks also indicate an old piece. If the wood shows circular or arc-shaped marks, you can bet the furniture maker used a circular saw, which didnít come into use until about 1860.

While furniture made before 1860 may look symmetrical, if you look closely, youíll see that it isnít. Handcrafted rungs, slats, spindles, rockers, and other small-diameter components arenít uniform. Slight differences in size or shape arenít always easy to spot. This is also the difference between an authentic piece of furniture and a reproduction. The former is hand cut while the latter is machine cut.

Furniture finishes can help you date a piece. Before the mid-1840s, shellac was the only clear surface finish. Lacquer and varnish didnít come along the mid 19th century. Older pieces may have oil, wax, or milk paint finishes. Fine old pieces are often French-polished, a variation of the shellac finish. And even though varnish may indicate a piece dates before 1860, a lot of American Empire pieces, dating from the 1820s to 1840s, have been refinished with varnish.

How furniture makers joined other parts of a piece of furniture together is another way to tell age. Generally, cabinetmakers used pegs to join parts together. Screws didnít come into common use until the early 19th century. Those made before 1840 had flat, un-tapered heads. Antique, handmade screws had irregular widths between the spirals, running the whole length of the shaft. The slot in the head was often off-center. New screws, on the other hand, have sharp points and regular, evenly spaced threads. And donít be fooled by what looks like a peg. It may just be a cover glued into the hole to cover up a counter-sinked screw.

The wood itself is the final clue. Furniture made before 1700 is usually oak, but after 1700, cabinetmakers commonly used mahogany and walnut. Youíll find that most rural American pieces are of pine because farmers made a lot of them during the cold winter months with easily found pine wood. Generally, cabinetmakers chose harder woodsómaple, oak, walnut, cherry, or mahogany. But these woods have always been favored for furniture, so workmanship and finish are probably a better sign of age than the wood itself.

After you give a piece a good overall look, measure it to see if itís even all around. Wood shrinks, so an older piece of furniture will most likely have uneven measurements. Tabletops, for example, wonít be as round as they would have been when new.

Run your hand over and shine a flashlight across the surface of the wood to detect hairline cracks and ripples that come with aging. Look underneath for the inevitable warping and buckling of wood.

Check to see if any of the wood has become discolored from uneven exposure to light. An old piece of furniture that has stood against a wall for years will show its age with distinct differences in coloring. And while itís a good idea to check the wood beneath the hardware, most dealers wonít allow you to detach the hardware to do so. However, if youíre able to do so, youíll notice that the wood is usually lighter underneath. Also look for screw holes on drawer fronts which indicate that the original hardware has been replaced. Replaced hardware may not affect the value of a European antique, but it can affect the value of an American one.

Those who attempt to make fake antique furniture go out of their way to create signs of wear. Search for signs of normal wear and the buildup of dust and grime in the furniture's corners and crevices. Fakers often forget to include the dirt build-up.

Look at the frame under the upholstery for sets of nail holes from previous upholstery. An aged piece may have seen several changes in fabric, so youíll see lots of holes from previous nails.

Look carefully at the glass in mirrors to see if you can tell if it has been replaced. Until the beginning of the 19th century, cabinetmakers imported all the mirror glass they used. Antique glass is thinóless than 1/8 inch thickóvariably wavy, and often grayish. To determine if a piece of mirror is old, hold the tip of a key to the glass. The closer the tip of the reflected image is to the tip of the actual key, the more likely it is that the glass is old.

And while youíll most likely be looking at a piece for signs of age, you should also look for signs of newness. A thriving business in the making of poor reproductions has developed in Indonesia. Skilled craftsmen put as much effort into making a piece look old as they would if they were making a fine reproduction. The difference is in the kinds of wood they use and how they join the pieces together.

Besides looking for the signs of age noted above, also check the edges of furniture. Newer pieces have smoother edges and feet. Also, the feet on newer pieces donít show the deep carving of older ones.

Wood veneers on antique furniture are of thick and somewhat irregular widths. Modern veneers are thin, with every slice exactly the same width.

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

Book: How to Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit
Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

Read an Excerpt

Provided by: News-Antique.com