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Building a Reference Library – The Foundation

by Fred Taylor (01/10/11).

These publications represent some of the best for building the foundation of a furniture library.

Doing research on older and antique furniture has gotten a lot easier in some respects over the last few years. The Internet now offers a vast array of sites to look at and learn about particular items or periods. There are also a growing number of interactive “Bulletin Board” type sites that offer questions and responses about different aspects of furniture. Some of them are strictly reader operated, relying on the willingness and expertise of the participants to share their collective wisdom with each other. Other sites are so-called “experts-centered” sites where self-described authorities on a given subject hold forth, taking on all comers.

You can learn a great deal about antique furniture from some of the sites, especially about the history of a given style or a particular company. But furniture is, after all, a visual art and there is nothing like seeing a piece of furniture rather than trying to imagine it from a description like “two over three over two drawer chest with applied bracket base rising on cabriole legs with claw and ball feet.” You can get the general idea but seeing it is still the best bet and unless you have a way to post photos on a bulletin board, even the best expert is sometimes left guessing what the conversation is about.

And where do the “experts” get their information, aside from daily activity in the trade? Mostly from print media, primarily books. Go to any authentic antiques dealer, furniture or not, and somewhere there is a personal library backing up their own experiences and knowledge.

So, once you build yourself a personal library of furniture books, you’re all set. Easier said than done, of course. Books are expensive and good books are really expensive. And there are thousands of books out there on the subject, each reaching for your pocket. How do you choose which ones to buy and which ones to try to find in a library? It depends on what you want from a book or from a series of books.

If you are specifically looking for information about furniture, avoid the “antiques of the world” type publications. No single publication can give you enough specific information about anything to make it worthwhile if it has to cover items in 30 or more categories. A good example of this wide-ranging kind of general book is the “The Bullfinch Illustrated Encyclopedia of Antiques” from Bullfinch Press. At about $30, this kind of book is great if you want to expand your general horizon on the subject of genuine antique artifacts of many sorts, but you won’t find great grandpa’s bookcase in it.

To start at the top and see some of America’s finest furniture from the 18th century, probably the only place to see them outside of museums, and to learn the precise details of the “real thing,” try the Winterthur book “American Furniture, Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods, 1725-1788,” published at around $100 by Schiffer Books. Also look at “American Furniture – Understanding Styles, Construction and Quality,” by John T. Kirk, Abrams Publishing, in the $40 range. But you won’t find the old family bookcase there, either.

In the same vein, but more much more useful, is “Field Guide to American Antique Furniture,” by Joseph T. Butler, Henry Holt Publishing. This one has very identifiable, clear line drawings of major styles and periods from William and Mary to Shaker. At less than $20, this is some of the best money you can spend. Also very useful in tracking down 18th- and early 19th-century pieces is the profusely illustrated volume by Helen Comstock, “American Furniture,,” Schiffer Books. For a mostly “picture book,” this one is a tightly focused, no nonsense look at some of America’s great stuff in very detailed photographs with excellent biographical material on cabinetmakers of the period, about $45 from the publisher.

For a broader perspective, covering Colonial to Modern with excellent color photos and lots of backup information, you can buy the two-volume set of “The Antique Hunter’s Guide,” published by Black Dog & Leventhal. The two volumes are “American Furniture – Tables, Chairs, Sofas & Beds,” by Marvin Schwartz and “American Furniture – Chests, Cupboards, Desks and Other Pieces,” by William C. Ketchum. The volumes are about $15 each from Amazon and are widely available in bookstores. You might even find the bookcase in there and each volume has an updated price guide from 2000 included.

Another broad-brush approach is found in the newly updated work by Oscar P. Fitzgerald, “Four Centuries of American Furniture,” Krause Publications, $25. Fitzgerald covers the gamut, from 17th-century Jacobean to Post Modern, the avant-garde furniture made since 1975 and is one of the important building blocks for the foundation of a library.

Of course while reading many of these sources you will encounter words and terms that are unfamiliar, being peculiar to the furniture trade. The best guide through this maze is “The Encyclopedia of Furniture,” by Joseph Aronson, first published by Crown in 1965. It is very thorough in its coverage of the topic and written in very understandable terms. The ISBN is 0-517-037351.

If you want to polish up on your basics, like identification of nails and screws and joinery and tool marks, two good ones are “Early American Furniture – A Practical Guide for Collectors,” by John Obbard, Collector Books, around $12 from the publisher. Not as sophisticated as Obbard’s book but useful nevertheless in ground-level identification is Robert Weinhagen’s “Assume Nothing,”Highland House Publishers, around $15 from specialty book dealers. Also in this category is “How to be a Furniture Detective,” $21.95 from the author at the Furniture Detective Web site. This site also includes a comprehensive booklist

But to get right down to it, to find specific information about a specific piece of furniture you have to go to sources that specialize in the specific period, the specific style or the specific company. That will be the subject of several future editions of this column.

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

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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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