Antique Furniture Tags: What They Say and What They Should Say

One of my favorite pastimes of course is antiquing; looking at and for antique furniture. One of my second favorites is reading the tags people put on antique furniture in an effort to sell it. These can often be much more enjoyable than the furniture they are attached to.

Ideally, there are several important pieces of information that a truly enlightening tag should carry, but that is seldom the case. Those tidbits of information should include the form of the piece, the style, the wood, the age, any embellishments or unusual features, attribution (the maker or manufacturer) if known, and of course, the price.

Form: This seems self explanatory, but the real names of objects can enhance their value and add to the buyer’s overall knowledge. There is a difference between a vanity, a dresser and a chest with a mirror, and they are important. A canterbury is a much nicer name than “old magazine rack,” and a nice Arts and Crafts piece should be called a “settle” instead of a couch. Form does count.

Style: In some cases, the style is not important or indeterminate, but that is not often the case. Correct identification of the style can help verify the age or origin of a piece and may even help support the price. Mislabeling of styles is commonplace, and the most common error is the use of the term “Victorian.” Victorian is used to refer to the era between 1837 and 1901 when Victoria reigned as Queen of England. It was an age, not a style. There were a myriad of styles, most of them “revivals,” during the Victorian era and they were all different. You can get style points for correct identification.

Wood: This is perhaps the most difficult category for most people, dealers and buyers alike. It really can be difficult to tell old brown mahogany from walnut or old air-dried red walnut from mahogany. How many people can actually tell the difference between oak, elm and ash? Many people think all light woods are pine and all red woods are cherry. Actually, there are only about seven basic woods and their sub-families commonly used in furniture. They are walnut, mahogany, cherry, oak, maple, pine and the close-grain fillers like gum, poplar and birch. Correct wood identification can often verify the authenticity of a period piece.

The tag says “Solid mahogany chest…” Open up the first drawer and take a look at the joinery. The fact that the drawer is veneered is indicated by the light colored line at the rear of the dovetail. That is the fifth layer of veneer in the lumber plywood drawer front.

The tag says “Solid mahogany chest…” Open up the first drawer and take a look at the joinery. The fact that the drawer is veneered is indicated by the light colored line at the rear of the dovetail. That is the fifth layer of veneer in the lumber plywood drawer front.

Age: This is a key piece of information and goes directly to the heart of what is an antique and what is just old furniture. Since very few pieces actually have dates on them (there are a few), dating to a specific year is almost impossible and most people settle for a range of years or a “period.” Use of the word “circa,” meaning about, covers up a lot of uncertainty but is perfectly acceptable in narrowing down the possibilities to just a few years. Its use is preferable to a strictly arbitrary date without substantial supporting evidence.

The tag says “Early 1800’s Eastlake...” Unlikely. Charles Locke Eastlake was an English architect whose book, “Hints on Household Taste,” was published in 1865 and his style was not popular until the 1870s.

The tag says “Early 1800’s Eastlake...” Unlikely. Charles Locke Eastlake was an English architect whose book, “Hints on Household Taste,” was published in 1865 and his style was not popular until the 1870s.

The tag says “200-year-old, hand-carved Renaissance Revival bed...” Renaissance Revival was mid-19th century. It has another 50 years to go before it could be 200 years old, and most RR furniture was factory made, not hand carved.

The tag says “200-year-old, hand-carved Renaissance Revival bed...” Renaissance Revival was mid-19th century. It has another 50 years to go before it could be 200 years old, and most RR furniture was factory made, not hand carved.

Embellishments: Items that might be missed altogether or need to have special attention drawn to them fall in this category. Hidden document drawers or concealed spaces are common embellishments. Signatures, date stamps, patent dates and foundry emblems are all examples of embellishments or special features. So are working locks with original keys, original hardware and original old glass.

The tag says “Hand-carved oak headboard...” The tiny nails in the “carvings” attest to the fact that they are applied molding.

The tag says “Hand-carved oak headboard...” The tiny nails in the “carvings” attest to the fact that they are applied molding.

Attribution: It is impossible to attribute most older and antique furniture to a specific person or company, but some pieces are marked, and if they are, that should be noted. Even later manufacturers’ labels are important. A Kittinger mahogany chair is certainly more interesting than just a chair, and a Berkey & Gay emblem can double the selling price of an early 20th-century bedroom set. Even proper regional or geographical attributions such as “Appalachian” or “Grand Rapids” can add interest and value to a piece.

Price: Naturally, an informative tag should carry the price of the piece. Sometimes it is written in code so that you have to ask the proprietor, thus initiating a conversation about the piece, but my guess is that this strategy quells as many sales as it makes. If a piece is fairly marked and the price is adequately supported by the evidence of all the preceding information, then the owner’s asking price should be clearly displayed on the tag.

These are the major things that should be on an informative furniture tag. Just a few facts can turn “tagging”—going antiquing just to read the labels—into a hobby all by itself. Enjoy.

Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address.

For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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12 Comments

  1. Seldom do I see light wood antique furniture, I think this is because darker woods are much more popular as dark wooden furniture seems richer in appearance and more mature. Dark wood also hides more imperfections so often look as if they harbor no errors.

  2. charles sweigart says:

    Most furniture is made of hardwood. Softwood furniture tends to be coated with a paint surface. Hardwoods are usually stained and varnished. Darker stain colors hide variations in natural colors. In addition, varnish will turn darker over time and will darken even light stained golden oak, so popular about 100 years ago.

    The maple wood is the most commonly seen light wood in antique furniture but usually with a figured grain, tiger or bird’s eye. You will see many dark wood pieces with light wood inlaid but rarely light w/dark inlay.

    Buy your antique furniture now, as prices are very low because of the economy. Take advantage of the price break and get some great deals but be selective and shop around for quality pieces.

  3. Donald Dyal says:

    I enjoy antique furniture–nay anything old–but I am not expert. Mr. Taylor’s comments are most worthy, but I fear also largely irrelevant in today’s world. Most dealers of antiquities seem to know less about their merchandise than I do, and I know next to nothing. THe cause which he espouses, informing the customer, requires knowledge on the part of the dealer. Here I fear, we are in deep waters.

  4. You are so right about darker furniture moving faster than light. I imported several pieces of antique pine furniture from Germany several years ago. I sold a chest of drawers with white marble top and a four drawer tall chest plus an amroire. I still have two large pieces (hutches) and at this market no one is buying. We have had four large furniture stores go out of business this past month because of the economy. From now on I’m looking for dark woods. Thanks for your informative articles.

  5. It is true that many “antique dealers” know little to nothing about furniture or antiques and hope we the public know less. I have several pieces handed down from generations and I on occasion will bring in one to an antique store to see what they say. They never get it right!

  6. Siobhan Furgurson says:

    Like so many things I think the dark vs light furniture goes with the current fashion. In the 80’s light furniture was the hot item of the day!

  7. Kait Hall says:

    Another really good article! I find that the same issues apply to real estate. Bungalow was usually applied to craftsman or homes built in the early 20th century. I see cape cod cottages & mutt houses labeled as bungalows. Like Donald said “Most…know less… than I do.”
    That being said, I know I surely learn a lot from all the articles I read on Worth Point’s e-pages. I am so glad I found you! Thanks to each & every one of you who take the time to share your knowledge with others!

  8. I don’t think in fifty years a better time to pick up some great bargains. I don’t think it will last for long. Most dealers are not educated in furniture so take advantage know. With the uncertainty in the world today people look back to time tested designs. Thomas T.

  9. This really helps a lot!!!! Thank you!!!

  10. Mary Jane Debee says:

    You are a wealth of information! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with all of us.

  11. Brenda Adams says:

    My husband and I just inherited some antique furniture from his grandmother’s estate. One piece is a large buffet with an emblem on it that we are curious about. We wonder what the symbols represent. It looks like a crest with four symbols. The crest looks like a crown divided into fourths. One the top left looks like a V. The one on the top right looks like a cross,but each of the four parts are equal, unlike a cross. The bottom left has an upside down crescent. The bottom right has another V. The furniture is very old – not sure how old, but his grandmother bought it as an antique. She died at 80 yrs. old and that was 37 years ago. I made a picture of it and could send that to you. Thanks for your help.

  12. Donna Ide says:

    I inherited a grandfather clock.I don’t know anything about the clock.I would like to know the age,& what type of wood & what style it would be called.I can send a picture by Email.I would appreciate any information you can give me. Thank You