The Collector’s Minute: Empire versus Empire Revival

Don’t let the style deceive. This isn’t an Empire chair. It’s Empire Revival. Though similar, the styles existed many years apart.

About once a month, we have a piece of furniture submitted by excited clients who are positive what they found is well more than 150 years old because they saw a similar one on the Internet, in an antique store or on Antiques Roadshow.

Nine times out of ten, the piece in question is in the Empire style, a style that does date all the way back to about 1815 in North America and made right up to the 1850s in more rural areas of the country. But the piece in question is actually what’s called Empire Revival—reproductions in the Empire style, but made circa 1900 to 1920; a good 50 years after the originals style fell out of favor.

The original American Empire style had its roots in France, circa 1798, after Napoleon returned from his Egyptian campaign bringing with him archaeological artifacts collected by scholars accompanying the campaign. These discoveries and artifacts became the fashion in Europe, with stylistic features such as caryatids, scarabs, sphinxes and winged lions—mixed with architectural features from ancient Greece and Rome—adorning everything from clocks to porcelain.

The Empire Revival types, made 1895 to 1915, tend to be copies of later Empire furniture, notably pillar-and-scroll pieces from John Hall’s 1840 book “The Cabinet-Maker’s Assistant.” It contained 198 plates of furniture designs consisting of mainly single and double C- and S-shaped scrolls and simple pedestal columns.

The reproductions were close copies in many ways but were, for the most part, entirely factory made with machine-cut joints.

Instead of figured mahogany veneer over pine or basswood cases, chairs and cabinet pieces were made mainly of birch, gumwood or maple with deep red-brown mahogany dye stain, which as many have found almost impossible to strip off.

Some Empire Revival furniture was made of oak, but it was generally not stained to resemble mahogany. Like the original pillar-and-scroll Empire pieces made circa 1835 to 1850, the reproduction Empire Revival furniture is not in vogue, with values of both types in decline since the 1990s. Empire Revival chairs like the one pictured often sell at auction now in the $150 to $225 range.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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