Friday, September 20, 2013

Guest Post from Dealer Art History Story: Antique Dating

When I opened my first booth at the Queen almost exactly a year ago, I named it Art History Story. Here’s why: I love beautiful things, and I needed more of them in my life. I figured other people did too. That’s the art part. And I love to research. That’s the history part. I love finding an antique piece at an auction of merchandise shipped in from England or France or even Indiana and figuring out what city the piece came from, what time period it dates to and how it was first used. And I think almost every piece has a story to tell. I always try to find the story of who made it and why an item is unique. Today, I’m going to try to teach you how to do the same in a few steps:

Step 1 - Always trust your first impression

Malcom Gladwell, in his book "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking", says, “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.” He tells the story of a Greek kouros statue brought to the Getty museum and claimed to be 2,500 years old. One expert, on first glance, knew that something wasn’t right, but he could not say what. Later, he would say, “Anyone who has ever seen a sculpture coming out of the ground could tell that that sculpture was never in the ground.” He just knew. After much money was spent on proving that the sculpture was a legitimate antiquity (and after the museum bought it), it was later discovered to be a forgery. The man who “just knew” was right, despite all the expert findings to the contrary. If you see a beautiful piece, and you “just know” it is old and beautiful and what you want, go for it. You may want to consider the price, but first impressions often stick.


Look at these two pieces. Both are in my booth. One is really old. One was distressed to look old. Without any training, you will be able to tell the difference. Sometimes it’s that easy.

Step 2 – Investigate

Though first impressions are good, there are other ways to find out about a piece. Turn a chair upside down. Look on the bottom of the seat for a label from the furniture company or a stamp or hand-written numbers. Generally, if it says “Made in Malaysia,” you’ll know it’s not an antique. (In 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act required that imported products be labeled as such. Furniture makers got much more specific about labeling after 1930). But you may find other marks, and that is where the story part comes in.

Last weekend, I bought three chairs from a junk dealer. One had glitter glue spilled all over its seat, but it was beautiful. I loaded it up with furniture stripper to get the glue off and then turned it over to make sure I wasn’t stripping anything on the underside of the chair. I found a mark that said, “Grand Ledge Chair Co.” on it. So I looked it up. Grand Ledge, Michigan has a rich history of furniture making and entertaining tourists. And I was even able to approximate the date the chair was made by reading the history of the chair company’s production. I was amazed at how sturdy it was to last so long. The label on the bottom of the chair also told me that it was mahogany. I gained a lot of information, just from turning it upside down.

You can look on the bottom of silver items to make sure they are really silver or silver plate. Things that come from Italy might say they’re from Italy on a tiny gold ring around the piece or from some mark in Italian hidden sneakily on the piece. Furniture makers often burn or print labels on the inside of the top drawer or on the back of a dresser or cabinet. Examine what you’re buying very carefully, and look for any kind of marks you can find.

Step 3 – Smell it

Those of us who love antiques also (usually) love the smell. Antiques smell like antiques. They don’t usually smell like fresh wood (cedar chests excepted). If you have been buying antiques for long, strange as it may sound, you can smell the different between an Ikea piece hacked to look like an antique and an actual antique.

This can sometimes be a negative. Some antiques smell musty, or they may just smell old. Trust your senses. And if you love the piece but don’t like the smell, try filling a bowl with coffee beans (or dry grounds) or charcoal and putting the bowl inside the piece somewhere. Both coffee and charcoal soak up smells well. You may also choose to wash your piece with an oil soap or just let it sit out in the sun for a day or so.

Step 4 – Go With What You Know

If you want to find out the story of the piece, go with what you already know. Do you know it has a roseback or a braceback, or if it’s a Windsor chair. Does it have Queen Anne style legs or bun or claw feet? Does it have hidden drawers or unusual paint? Run a Google search with the most identifying features you do know about it and click on “images.” Look for pieces that look like the one you’re investigating. Read the story of items that have something in common with your piece, and follow their trail. (Pinterest can also be a good place to look for these.)

If you are old-school, you can also make a trip to the library and check out an antiques book. Kovel’s is the best and most current about value. (By the way, if you look at the value of antique pieces in books, you will find that the prices you get at the Queen are usually far below the piece’s actual value, even often less than you would pay for the same piece online!)

Step 5 – Visit an Expert

If you think you might have found something really valuable, take your piece to an expert. I bought an antique grandfather clock from an auction of French pieces. When I wanted to determine its value and learn its story, I researched and researched. I even tried to write a letter to a clock maker in the city where the clock was built. But my French is terrible, and I finally gave up my online investigation. So, I took it apart and took the pieces to a Swiss clock repairman in Roswell. He was able to tell me the value of the clock as well as what it would take to get it into perfect running order, and now he will be a resource to me any time I buy another one.

And getting an appraisal could be easier than you think. Steve White, an appraiser in Cumming does $10 appraisals once a month or so. There are also online appraisers who will appraise your piece by photos for a small fee.

Step 6 – Follow the Rabbit Trails

This is for the story piece. When you buy an antique, if you have the opportunity to talk to the former owner of the piece, ask as many questions as you can. Where did it come from? How much did they pay for it? Is it a family heirloom? Did it come from another state or country? Do they know of anything special about the piece, marks, etc.? All of this can help you to understand what you have, and you may win a friend in the process!

I once bought a set of bedroom furniture from a woman who had hoped to repair it and found she could not. She told me it had a lot of sentimental value. I saw it on Craigslist and chose it immediately because it had a kind of leg I had never seen. When I asked her about the piece, she told me it had been her grandmothers in the Dominican Republic, and that her grandmother told her it had been in the family for years before her. The pieces turned out to be from the early 1700s, and I might not ever have been able to discover this if I didn’t have the information from the girl who sold it to me.

Step 7 – Study Up

Learn about the periods antique dealers use to identify items. Go online and search “date antique by legs” or change the word “legs” to “feet” or “chair back,” etc. Knowing what William and Mary stretcher bases look like or when and where pieces with barley twist legs were made might help you when you are shopping for pieces in the future. 

You can read in a book (again – I would recommend Kovel’s), or you can just look to see what you can find online. If you like to learn, you will find a lot! If you are visually oriented, you might find pages like this one of great interest!

Step 8 - Visit the Queen!

You may decide to leave the study of Queen Anne behind and head over to the Queen of Hearts! It’s a great way to practice what you are learning as you study. Look around for some really old pieces and then get to work. Pick up the piece. Turn it upside down (you may need to ask permission if the piece is bigger or fragile) or look behind it or open the drawers or climb under the table top and have a peek. Smell the wood, check the finish, listen to your gut. The store is a perfect place to do this kind of detective work. You may find something you think is really old, or something you really love. Trust your gut. If you love it, you’re probably right!

Jill Turner is a dealer at the Alpharetta Queen of Hearts and her booth is Art History Story, dealer code AHS, located on Meeting St. She also has a booth, dealer code HOPE on E Bay St. Follow the link to like her on Facebook!