One of the most important determinants of value in an older piece of furniture, naturally, is the “condition,” which is one of the most-frequently heard words in any discussion about antiques. But how do you determine the condition of a piece other than just giving it the once over? You should develop a system for looking at each piece using a checklist of key points. That’s where the “F” words come into play. Here is the outline of a system for determining what condition the condition is in based on the “F” words of furniture: FIT, FITTINGS, FUNCTION, FRAME and FINISH.
FIT – In a general sense, this means “do all the parts of the piece or all the pieces of the set fit together?” Do they belong where they are? Has anything been added or subtracted? For example, are all the chairs in the set identical? Sure they may look like it at first glance, but you need to line them up together and take a close look at all the features of each chair to make sure they all belong to this set. The buffet and china do resemble each other, but do they actually match and do they match the table and does the table go with the chairs?
The siderails sure look like they go with the bed, but you need to try them anyway. And while you are there, just for fun, make sure the headboard and footboard match. Do the leaves actually fit the table? Open it up and try them. Don’t take anybody’s word for it.
This Federal era work table circa 1810-1820 has a couple of hardware problems. The top left drawer pull is upside down. The escutcheon on the top drawer is from a much later period, after mid century. Federal tables normally only have key surrounds, not escutcheons.
FITTINGS – This means all the little stuff and some of the big stuff that goes along with a piece of furniture; the decorations and added touches. The presence or absence of such additions can give you a clue about the long term care of the piece.
The first item of business is to check all the hardware—drawer pulls, door knobs, locks, etc. Is it all there? Does it all match? Here again, take a very careful look. Our eyes expect everything to match so we have to look very carefully so that our eyes don’t fool us. Is the hardware appropriate for the piece? Carved fruit handles on an Arts and Crafts piece are terribly out of place. So are bright, shiny round knobs on an Eastlake dresser. Use a good reference picture book, such as “Field Guide to American Antique Furniture” by Butler, if you are unsure what the correct hardware for apiece or period should be.
This Empire chain cabinet is missing two of the original panes of glass.
Fittings also means wooden decorative elements like the applied carving or molding found on many turn-of-the-century pieces. Check carefully for shadows and small nail holes that would indicate a piece of trim or decorative carving is missing. It can also mean major elements like a splashboard or mirror that is no longer in place. Check carefully along the back of the top of a chest or buffet for signs that a splashboard was once there. Look on the back of chests for evidence of the support brackets that once held up a mirror. If a tilting mirror (a cheval) is in place, check to make sure the pins that hold the frame in place between the stanchions are original to the piece. Big pieces get lost too. Make sure the crown to the armoire is in place and didn’t get left in the garage at the last move. Check the top of the drop front desk to see if there once was a bookcase on top.
The original glass in the cabinet is 19th century cylinder glass that has the delicious distortions shown in the reflection. It would be a shame to replace the two missing panes with perfectly clear modern glass. 19th-century cylinder glass is available from a number of sources.
Glass panes also qualify as fittings. Check the glass to make sure each pane matches the color and texture of the others. Newer replacement glass will lack the distortions and bubbles or seeds that older glass has. Check especially close to make sure that a pane of curved glass has not been replaced with an acrylic panel.
An examination of the bottom of this mid-19th-century drawer shows a lot of wear and stress on the bottom panel. That means there is a problem with the drawer slides either on the drawer itself or in the case.
FUNCTION – Here’s the really important “F” word. Since furniture is often portrayed as functional art, the “function” part is critical. If a piece is supposed to move, make sure it does so with a minimum of strain on both you and the piece. Drawers should slide in and out smoothly and quietly. There shouldn’t be a “bump” when the drawer closes. An extension table should not require a weight-lifter to open it. The drop front of a desk should open cleanly and stop securely without a groan or a bounce.
Chairs should accept your weight quietly and feel stable as you sit and moderately squirm. If you can hear the chair, it’s loose and needs repair. This is especially true in rockers and platform rockers. Check the rockers of both types to make sure there are no flat spots that will cause more stress on the chair when it is in motion. In general, just make sure the piece works like it is supposed to work.
This Depression-era chest has an internal frame that supports the drawers and the sides. Check it well before you buy.
FRAME – This is the load-bearing structure of the piece. In 18th and early 19th century case goods, the case itself is part of the frame. The sides are load bearing. In later case goods the sides and drawers are suspended in and around a frame that carries all the weight. Make sure this frame is intact and secure. Check the cross members of the frame for tight joints and a smooth fit. Check the legs and feet for loose parts and for water damage, rot or excessive wear.
FINISH – The finish is the end of the “F” words. The primary purpose of the finish is to protect the wood from moisture and abrasion. Looking nice is also preferable but negotiable. Examine the finish carefully, looking across the surface against a light source. Look for areas worn down to bare wood. Also look for crazing and cracking that indicate a deteriorating finish that will need some help to maintain its integrity. A cloudy or obscure finish is a warning sign. It could just be the accumulation of wax and polish that can be cleaned or it could be lack of adhesion that means the finish is about to disintegrate.
Use this checklist of “F” words to get the most from your furniture adventures.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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