Authenticating the provenance of antique furniture

A coin worth millions or hundreds? The delicate affair of identifying antique furniture

As any viewer of the popular Antiques Roadshow TV show will tell you, an antique’s identity determines its value. The true identity of a coin can make the difference between an item worth thousands of dollars and one worth a fraction of that.

Considering the high stakes, identifying antiques correctly might seem like a task for experts, but there are a few best practices that content claiming experts can learn to get through an appraisal – before you go. escalate the claim to the experts. Sometimes authenticating a part by a signature or a manufacturer’s label can give claims a large amount of information about who made the part, where it was made, and its approximate age.

But more often than not, it is best to spend an expert’s time determining the provenance of the object, defined as a document of ownership of an antique that can then be used as a guide to its authenticity and quality.

Document, Document, Document

Documentation to establish provenance includes estate inventories, photographs, or a documented inclusion in a respected museum exhibit or publication. Invoices and auction results from well-known and respected antique dealers and auction houses are also useful in determining provenance.

Photo credit: Thomas Livingston Antiques catalog

Take for example this secretary pictured here – a Chippendale mahogany secretary from Newburyport, Massachusetts. In this case, the insured was able to present an article written in a book that actually portrayed and discussed the play. This type of information is extremely useful because it validates the nature of the part, where it was made, and the quality and condition of the item.

Unfortunately, this level of documentation is relatively rare. Most often, fitters are presented with parts with an associated family history. In these cases, the parts are passed on by the family and the original information is lost. Requesters often search on Google, find a similar high value article, and assume that is the article.

Unfortunately, without proper documentation, these claims can be difficult to validate. The world of art and antiques is huge with a number of different fields and countless specialties. Experts in the specific field are often needed to identify and assess particular items. It is almost impossible to do a proper assessment without having some expertise in these specialties.

The auction houses that sell these items complicate matters. There are thousands of such outlets and their currency is caveat emptor, also known as “buyer beware”. Auctioneers are under pressure to sell high-priced items and not everything they say is necessarily correct. Merchants and decorators also may not have the expertise to properly identify an item. Take their recommendations with a grain of salt, except for well-known and respected companies.

The importance of the origin

It seems logical that the origin of a part does not matter in determining its value but, in fact, it is an important component of the price of an item.

Perhaps the most striking example of this in the antique world is the difference between the values ​​of American furniture and English furniture.

Most people would assume that English furniture, made with great quality and in large quantities in the ancient times, is more valuable than American antiques. It is true that it is sometimes the case.

However, in England there were 100 times more master craftsmen than in America during most of American history until the late 19th century. As a result, high-quality American furniture from this period is scarce and therefore may have a significantly higher monetary value.

Left: Photo Credit: CHRISTIE'S Right: Photo Credit: G. Sergeant Antiques, Woodbury, CT
Left: photo credit: CHRISTIE’S
Right: Photo credit: G. Sergeant Antiques, Woodbury, CT

Take for example these two pieces in the photo above. On the left side is a sculpted Samuel Field McIntire dining chair from Salem, Massachusetts. Samuel McIntire was one of the first great furniture sculptors in the Americas. On the right side is an English chair which, to the untrained eye, is similar and of equally high quality.

The main difference between these two pieces from the point of view of an antique dealer or a collector is the rarity, the connection with the past, and, in this case, the American past. When these pieces were made in the late 18th century or early 19th century, there were few American cabinet makers working at this level of quality.

As a result, the piece on the left has a connection to the American past which is extremely desirable and this is reflected in the price. This American chair is valued at around $ 40,000- $ 60,000. The beautiful English chair on the right is valued at a fraction of that, at around $ 2,500.

What to look for

The first thing antique dealers or collectors do when examining an antique or piece of furniture is to see it from a distance, especially the decoration and the wood. These two things will sometimes give us an idea of ​​where a part was made and how good a part is. For example, if the piece is teak, we know that it was most likely made in Asia. These two attributes can also give us an idea of ​​whether it is a formal piece or a country piece. This gives us a first direction to pursue in the identification.

Then we move closer to inspect the object more closely. This involves pulling out the drawers and looking at the back, underside, and inside of a cabinet. Looking at these parts can give us clues as to the age and build quality of a part.

It can also reveal if there is damage to a part. Replacements, restorations and repairs of a part are much more difficult to hide in these secondary surfaces, which are unfinished and have no varnish or lacquer.

With secondary surfaces like these, the wood has not been sealed and, just like silver, it tarnishes by oxidation when left out. The premise is the softwood on the back and underside of an antique that will oxidize and darken over time and it’s easy to spot replacement and restoration work with that in mind.

In contrast, the main exterior surfaces are often cleaned and restored to maintain their beauty. While the more hidden secondary surfaces are often left intact, making it easier to establish a story of the unedited part.

The interior can also show important information about the construction of a room. The quality of construction, the skill of the cabinet maker, the age and even the origin of an antique can sometimes be determined by examining the interior.

With these basic guidelines in mind, it’s important to reiterate how important it is to correctly identify antique furniture. The price difference between parts of similar appearance is huge.

Photo credit: CHRISTIE'S
Photo credit: CHRISTIE’S

In the photo above, the desk on the left is from the Goddard Townsend workshop in Rhode Island, possibly the largest and most prestigious of early American cabinetmakers. There are about 11 or 12 of these offices. A verified coin like the one on the left sold several years ago at auction for just over $ 12 million.

The right piece is a beautiful handmade replica. Made in an identical style from afar, it’s hard to see a difference. However, this reproduction sells for around $ 20,000, a price considerably less than $ 12 million. The point should be clear – when establishing the provenance of antique furniture, you can never verify enough.

George Somerville Colpitts is a review appraiser for Enservio (, a provider of content claims management software, payment solutions, inventory and appraisal services for real estate insurers. With over 20 years of antiques experience, Colpitts is Chairman of the Standards Committee of the Antiquities Board and former owner of Somerville House Antiques.

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