My Recent Buy: Deliberate Deceptions
“My Recent Buy” will be a regular feature in The Insider. What did you buy recently that brings a smile to your face? Share the object and your story with our readers. Send the story of your buy and two to four images to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your recent buy might appear in a future issue. This week we bring you a recent buy made by our very own expert, Harry Rinker.
This fan had a paper attached to the wire hanger on the reverse that read: “This ivory fan was given by Dr. Clarence Baker Agnew Turner to his wife Bertie Lee Taylor Turner in early 1990’s (1908-1910?). Virginia Dix Turner, wife of Alexander Edwin Turner their son—had it framed in 1976 in this special Italian [frame – word missing from end of note].”
Barb Jersey, owner of Wonder Women Estate Sales in Michigan and a former student of my Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles, is aware of my desire to acquire objects that I can use for teaching purposes, especially those that fit into the “period, reproduction, copycat, or fake” category. During one of her 2018 estate sales, Barb called to inform me she had set aside two objects she thought “I could not live without.”
[Author’s Aside #1: At 77, whether I like to admit it or not, there are plenty of objects I should live without. If I adopt my wife Linda’s reasoning, plenty is not a number. It is a word—all. As a collector, I learned many basic truths about collectors’ mindsets. One is: collectors have no interest whatsoever in listening to reason—their own or that of others. Collectors have a hidden “buy it” conscience that overrules reason. When it surfaces, collectors obey.]
During my career, I had the privilege to admire hundreds of fans elegantly displayed in a fan-shaped shadowbox. Owning one was on my “someday” list. When Barb called me to tell me she had one available, she peaked my interest.
The handwritten note on the back.
The frame has a maximum width of 17 1/4 inches and a maximum height of 11 1/2 inches. Barb informed me that fan had a paper attached to the wire hanger on the reverse that read: “This ivory fan was given by Dr. Clarence Baker Agnew Turner to his wife Bertie Lee Taylor Turner in early 1990’s (1908-1910?). Virginia Dix Turner, wife of Alexander Edwin Turner their son—had it framed in 1976 in this special Italian [frame – word missing from end of note].” As an advocate that the trade sells dreams, stories, and wonder, I am a sucker for a piece with strong provenance. I told Barb I would buy it.
When I went to pick it up, Barb asked me if I noticed anything unusual. I spotted two issues immediately. The ivory looked like plastic – plastic not celluloid. The metal ring the held the fan blades and acted as a carrying device showed no tarnish. I shared these observations with Barbara. “Look again,” she said. I looked and then asked, “what am I missing?” “Try raking light over it,” Barbara responded.
[Author’s Aside #2: In my initial inspection, I violated two of my authenticating rules – always examine an object using raking light and at an angle that you would not normally view the object. This allows the eyes to see and record exactly what they are seeing as opposed to seeing what the mind wants them to see. When looking at an object from a traditional perspective, a person’s mind corrects flaws so the object appears whole.]
The clue I missed was on the top fan blade on the right. Near its base was “MADE IN / HONG KONG / 108.” The fan was not from the early 1900s. It was made in the 1970s.
It is time for another “Rinker’s Rule”—never trust provenance without checking first to make certain the object supports it. I have lost count of the number of times during my professional career when this rule applied to pieces I encountered.
I was intrigued by the disparage between the provenance and the object. What happened? Three possibilities came immediately to mind. First, the framer switched fans. The framer may have realized he had a client who knew little about the history of fans, had a cheap plastic fan that closely resembled the period fan, and assumed that once framed, the client would not notice the difference.
Second, the owner of the fan sold the period fan but did not have the nerve to tell the family. He/she bought a cheap modern fan and had it framed. As far as the family was concerned, the framed fan was the one that descended down the family.
Since the early 20th century, high-end antiques dealers and large auction houses have offered a unique, but little discussed service. If a person owned a family heirloom, fell on hard times, and needed to sell it but was afraid to tell the family, the dealer or auction house would have an exact reproduction made. When the two pieces were switched, the only person who know about it was the seller.
It is no secret in the antiques trade that the Sack family of antique dealers began their career as makers of reproduction period furniture and restorers of old furniture. Major dealers and auction houses either have an inhouse shop or an alliance with one or more restorers who specialize in “they will never be able to detect the repair or alternation” approach. When I was the Director of the Historical Society of York County [PA] from 1972 to 1977, I met the cabinetmakers and other restorers used by the Kindig family. During a major exhibit on Pennsylvania German furniture, Joe Kindig told me: “More than half of that handing cupboard was made in my shop.”
The third possibility is that a seller may have created the fictitious provenance for financial gain. This certainly will not be the first time a dealer has created a false provenance trail. I currently am working on the provenance story of a starboard lamp taken from ship that broke apart and beached in the early 1920s. The lamp has an 1879 patent date. There is no supporting documentation other than the dealer’s claim. While there apparently always something rotten in Denmark (with apologies to William Shakespeare), a similar smell occurs far too often in the antiques and collectibles trade.
There are three pieces of good news. First, Barbara sold the frame reproduction fan to me for less than $10.00. Second, it is a great teaching tool, a welcome addition to my “real, reproduction, copycat, and fake collection.” Third, Barb also had a framed manuscript receipt for the purchase of “8 Fancy Chairs.., 1 Fancy Rock,…5 Roll Top Windsor Chairs, 1 Do Rocking Do” bought from the Hitchcock company in 1818. [Note: Lambert Hitchcock founded his furniture factory in 1818.]. Upon close examination, it was copy of a fake or a reproduction of a period document that exists somewhere. The paper was artificially aged, wrinkled, and dirtied.
A framed manuscript receipt for the purchase of “8 Fancy Chairs.., 1 Fancy Rock,…5 Roll Top Windsor Chairs, 1 Do Rocking Do” bought from Hitchcock in 1818. The paper was artificially aged, wrinkled, and dirtied.
The piece will serve as a reminder for future students to always de-frame an object before authenticating it. It allows me to talk about how oak gall ink interacts with paper over time and to demonstrated the difference between printed or photocopied pieces and period handwritten manuscripts. Barb gifted the piece to me as a bonus.
Good collectors are educators. The more knowledgeable individuals are about authentication, object identification, and business practices, honest or deceptive, the better the antiques and collectibles field becomes.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
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