Is It an Antique or Real Treasure? It’s Your Call

Is this dining set a valuable antique? No. It is a 20th-century Colonial Revival reproduction. Is it attractive? Yes. Is it useful? Yes. Is it a treasure? Absolutely.

Assume for a minute that you have just come into the possession of what looks like it might be a valuable piece of antique furniture. Maybe you inherited it by default. Maybe you stumbled across it at a yard sale or an auction or maybe you even found it in a junk store. This could be your “Antiques Roadshow” moment.

So now what? Well, first you have to find out what you actually have. How? You could spend hours at the library thumbing through a probably inadequate set of antique furniture reference books. You could also spend an equal number of hours Googling your way through the Internet looking at things that may look sort of like what you have but not exactly. Or you may just get overwhelmed by the number of commercial hits you get trying to sell you that “antique” chest of drawers or couch that you used as a search word. There are other search engines besides Google but you know what I mean.

[You could search through WorthPoint’s Worthopedia, the Internet’s largest database for valuing your art, antiques and collectibles, or you could even ask Fred to tell you by utilizing our Ask a Worthologist feature. – Editor.]

It turns out that the antique furniture business, like almost every other field of specialized endeavor, has its own vocabulary and its own nuances of usage and meaning. For example, an antique coffee table does not exist in the world of a true antique dealer or collector because the coffee table as we know it is a 20th-century form. The same is true for a Jenny Lind bed. While it is not a 20th-century form, the form most associated with the name is not the one that so pleased the Swedish opera singer in the mid-19th century. Her favorite spool bed did not have rounded corners on the headboard and footboard.

The bed on top is generally called a Jenny Lind bed, but the bottom bed is the true example of the form.

It turns out that the way to get the facts on your new possession is the same way you get the facts about so many other complicated subjects: ask someone who knows. Go visit an antique shop that you think may carry items similar to the style and vintage that you presume yours to be. Or, better yet, visit a large mall where you can see perhaps dozens or even hundreds of items that may have some relativity to yours. But don’t just read the labels … ask questions. Unfortunately, many mall clerks and some of the dealers are as clueless as you are and can offer little of substance in your quest, while others are a veritable wealth of information. One of the best sources is at a large antiques show. The dealers are usually very knowledgeable. You just have to filter the information you receive very carefully. What you hear has to pass the smell test. Like milk, if it doesn’t pass the smell test, it probably is no good. A smell test for furniture? Yes, but not with your nose, with your brain. If a piece of information just doesn’t fit with what your common sense tells you, it probably doesn’t fit with the furniture. Furniture vocabulary is not that exotic.

One of my favorite examples is the information given to me by a reader regarding a furniture company in the late 19th century. She informed me that the company did not use any power equipment and that each piece was entirely handmade by individual craftsmen and each piece was slightly different. No doubt this information was imparted to her in a sincere effort to sell her the piece of furniture in question but the facts of the piece did not bear out her story. I found exact comparables to her piece with the same label and finish. I also found circular saw marks, which leaves out the “no power tools” concept and company history reflected the fact that it used very modern—for the time—assembly line methods of construction.

With any luck at all, using some, none or all of the just mentioned methods of discovery, you will probably eventually find out what you really have. And if you are really lucky, you may find out an approximate current market value, although that may be iffy. And even if one source tells you it is a real antique from a previous century, don’t quit the day job. Confirm it with another source.

Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that you do not have a valuable antique piece of furniture. In some cases you may have a fairly old piece that belonged to several previous generations who thought it was even older than it is, but that’s the problem with oral family history. It isn’t very reliable. Or the piece may turn out to be not much older than your parents, it just looks old. And the value is about what you paid for it or less.

OK, now its decision time. Keep it or chuck it? It’s up to you. But just because a piece is not an antique and has less current market value than you had hoped is no reason to get rid of it. It has probably already lasted longer than most furniture you own so it has some integrity to it. It may turn out to better-constructed and made of better materials than is currently offered in contemporary models of whatever it is and current market value is only one measure of the value of a piece of furniture. Utility value is high on the list of desirable traits for furniture and if it is useful it has value whether it is a true antique or not. And then there is the case of sentimental value if you inherited the piece. It’s hard to put a price on that in dollars and cents.

In short, if it serves your purpose and looks good or can be made to look even better you may have come across something even more valuable than an antique, you found a real treasure.


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

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. 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 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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