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8 tips for buying antique furniture

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It’s time to pull out some drawers

apartment with blue sofa Photo: Gieves Anderson

One of our favorite places to hunt for furniture is at auction houses, antiques stores, and flea markets. But how can you tell the difference between a hidden treasure and something that’s best left alone? We spoke to expert furniture appraiser Andrew Holter to find out.

Look closely to see how the piece was made

Does the piece you’re looking at have drawers? If so, pull them out and look at how they were constructed. That will reveal if the piece was handmade or not. "Look at the side of the drawer—you should see dovetails," says Holter. "And on the inside of the drawer front, where it meets with the sides, there there should also be larger cut marks. Those are called kerf marks. They indicate where the cabinet maker was cutting out the dovetails in the drawer face to be attached with the drawer sides. It’s sort of the leftover marks that the saw created. You want to see those. They are tell-tale signs of hand craftsmanship."

Generally speaking, the earlier the piece—and the further away from a city center it was produced—the larger the dovetails will be. "During the 17th and 18th centuries, from about the William and Mary to Queen Anne furniture periods, they were sort of slapping things together, and they didn’t have time to make small dovetails," says Holter. "Away from the city centers, you got craftspeople who weren’t trained in the typical fashion of coming up through a heavy apprenticeship in a cabinet maker's workshop."

By contrast, the top early cabinet makers would show off their skill by making the necks of the dovetail much thinner. "As you get into the later time periods, you’ll find dovetails become more refined and then, eventually, you see them getting phased out," says Holter.

If you don’t see dovetails, then the piece is probably held together with nails and glue, which is a sign the piece was made in a factory closer to the 20th century.

Check out the hardware

While you have the drawer out looking for dovetails, don’t forget to inspect the hardware, too. "When you pull a drawer out and look at the back of the handle, you should expect to see a threaded post and a nut securing that brass to the drawer front," says Holter. "If you don’t see that nut and just see what looks to be the top of a slotted or flathead screw going towards the face of the drawer, then that is an indication that the hardware is newer. It’s also a good indication that the piece is not old as well."

Try to find a signature, a label, or a stamp

While signatures are rare on pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, Holter says to check on the backs and undersides of drawers (which, as we have come to realize, hold a lot of information about the age and authenticity of a piece of furniture!) to potentially find pencil marks or chalk signatures that may indicate who made the piece and where it was produced. Does the piece you’re looking at not have a drawer? Check either its back or its bottom.

"In the later 19th century right up through the 1950s, you start to see factory-made furniture with stamps," says Holter. "You don’t find many names, but you will find either impressed or stenciled numbers on the inside of drawers, which correspond to model numbers of designs that the factory produced."

Check for damage

Where a piece is most likely to be damaged depends a lot on what part of the furniture is subject to the most wear.

"We love to tip backwards in chairs, right?" So the back of the chair," Holter explains, or "the upper portion called the crest and the center supports, also known as the splats—are the most likely parts to have been repaired or replaced."

Chests of drawers, which can be heavy, have often been pushed around rather than lifted and moved. Holter suggests looking first to the feet for damage and replacements.

If you see cracks in the wood, though, don’t worry too much. "Wood will expand and contract over time due to fluctuations in temperature and create shrinkage cracks," says Holter. "You should expect to see those in pieces from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. It’s common, and I don’t necessarily think they detract from a piece’s value."

Know the difference between a repair and a replacement

This may seem obvious, but repairs are when original pieces have been fixed back onto a piece of furniture. A replacement is when the once missing part has been repaired with an entirely new piece.

Decide how you feel about refinished furniture

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to a piece of furniture’s finish. The first is that the original finish of the piece is a part of that piece’s history and should never be touched. "Purists think that the original finish lends to the authenticity of the object, because it has never been touched. The finish is layers upon layers of dirt and oils and grime that have accumulated on the piece," says Holter.

Tell-tale signs that a piece still has its original finish is if the piece looks purple or black in color. It may also have a crazed surface, or slightly cracked varnish. "Think of a surface that almost looks like a tiny alligator’s skin with crackles—that’s what crazing looks like," says Holter. "That occurs over time with the breakdown of the varnish when it’s exposed to heat."

While the original finish may represent the piece’s age, it may also obscure qualities of the wood the cabinet maker originally intended to capitalize on. "Many people argue that a piece that’s turned purple or black with age is not how the maker would have originally wanted the piece to look,’ says Holter. "It would have been shiny when new. The beauty of the wood itself—which may have been used to accentuate certain parts of the piece—is now obfuscated."

Something to keep in mind, though, is that the original surface brings what Holter calls an "X-factor" to the piece, one that may add to the value of the object. Once it’s gone, it can’t ever be added back, although you can find people who are skilled at replicating the old surface.

Online auctions are okay!

If you don’t have a good antiques store or auction house near you, don’t shy away from looking online. Aside from sites like Bidsquare and Liveauctioneers, many established firms like Christie’s and Sotheby’s offer online complements to their scheduled auctions.

"Traditionally, people like to touch a piece of furniture, feel it, and see it in person," says Holter. "So, it’s very important to trust the seller or auction house you’re buying from. You have to have faith that the seller will accurately tell you a piece is authentic and if there have been any repairs or replacements made."

Still feel apprehensive about just going off pictures? Train your eye by doing a little research on furniture styles. Holter likes the book The New Fine Points of Furniture (Crown, 320 pages) by Albert Sack.

Always buy what you love

"You shouldn’t treat these things as investments," says Holter. "Value can fluctuate just like stocks and bonds—just because these are antiques and they are old does not mean the value will constantly increase."

But after checking the piece thoroughly, considering its age and checking for dovetails and original hardware, what’s the ultimate piece of advice? "The most important point is: buy what you love," says Holter. "Because you gotta live with it!"