Monday, September 22, 2014

9 Ways to Help Identify Antique Furniture

QUESTION: Some friends of my mom’s gave me what looks like a Chippendale desk. They didn’t know anything about it, so I’ve had to do some research on my own. The only problem is that I can’t seem to find out much about it. Can you please help me out?

ANSWER: Not only will I try to tell you something about your desk, I’d like to give you and others some tips on what to look for when trying to identify antique furniture.

First and foremost, you need to determine if the piece you have is really an authentic antique or whether it’s a reproduction, a revival piece, a fake, or just a piece of junk. The key to the history of valuable antiques is whether they have a provenance—a history of ownership. This document lists the maker, all the owners to the present, and whether any repairs have been done to it. If you were spending five or six figures for a piece of furniture, you certainly would want to know everything you can about it.

But what about everyday pieces that don’t come with a provenance. Identifying them is a bit more difficult. Follow these steps and you should be able to determine quite a bit about any older piece of furniture that you have.

1. Determine the style. Using photographs in antiques books and photos online, try to determine the style of your piece. Certain styles, such as Chippendale, have telltale features, such as ball-and-claw feet, that help to identify them.

2. If it’s not authentic, determine if your piece is a revival or a reproduction. The difference between a revival and a reproduction is quite simple. The first is stylized version of the original style. So Colonial Revival furniture represents stylized versions of true 18th-century American Colonial pieces. A reproduction, on the other hand, is an exact replica of the original, often made of the same type of wood, using the same woodworking techniques.

3. Determine its age. Check to see if it has any nails or screws. An original Chippendale desk would have been assembled with pegs and mortar and tenon joints. Does it have any manufacturers labels anywhere? If so, then it’s definitely a Colonial Revival piece or even a fine reproduction from the mid-20th century.

4. Check any drawers for dovetailing. You can usually tell if the dovetails are handmade or done by machine. Those done by machine are very regular and even and can usually be found on pieces after about 1870.

5. Look inside the drawers or pullouts and see if the maker used the same wood—for example, mahogany. Later versions will have used some sort of fruitwood---pear, apple, or even poplar---for the drawer backs and sides. If its an older piece, the drawer bottoms will be made of a thinner version of the same wood.

6. Does the piece have decoration that isn’t in keeping with its style? Look at the detailing on your piece of furniture. Does it have added knobs or edging that doesn’t seem to go with the style of the piece. Often one of the owners of the piece may have added these to make it more up to date. The opposite also applies. Can you tell if any details have been removed for the sake of updating?.

7. Have any repairs been made to the piece? Look for signs of glue, nails, or screws that seem newer than the piece, itself. Also look for replaced wood panels, veneer, or detailing, such as finials.

8. Has the hardware been replaced or is it original? You can usually tell if hardware has been replaced. For instance, you’ll often see chests of drawers sporting glass or brass knobs. Originally, these chests usually had wooden knobs, but antique dealers, in an effort to make them more attractive to decorators, replace the original knobs with glass or brass ones. It’s actually better to replace missing original knob with a reproduction rather than replace the entire set with hardware that wouldn’t have been originally on the piece.

9. Were you told anything it about it? Did the seller or the person who gave you the piece tell you anything about its past? Did you ask them?

By studying the closeup photos that accompany this blog, you’ll notice the following about this desk.

First, your desk is definitely from the late 19th century---I’d say probably the 1880s, based on the 1886 mark you found. Second, the dovetails are definitely 19th century. But the real signs are the nails or screws that appear in one of the photos and the rather poor craftsmanship of the carving and joining. In an authentic Chippendale, the wood would be perfectly matched---the top of the leg where it joins the desk is a good example. Also, the stain would be even. I believe this piece had been refinished at some point, and not very well. I can tell that from the molding closeup from the front rim of the desk. And the last sign is the carving, itself. The little stars were stamped in. No 18th-century craftsman would have ever done that.

When asking someone to help you identify a piece, it helps if you take closeup photos of certain parts of the piece—hardware, dovetails, inside of drawers, carving, repairs, even the back.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What About Early Boob Tubes?

QUESTION: While helping a friend clean out his attic, I discovered he had an old television set. Though it was covered in dust, it looked like it may have been from the 1950s. When I asked him if I could have it, he said “Sure, I don’t want that piece of junk.” But now that I have it, I’m not sure what to do with it. The screen seems to be suspended in a U-shaped ring which sits atop a box with control knobs. It bears the name Philco Predicta.

ANSWER: You have one of the prime post-war television sets, dating from 1959. This famous set had a rather bad reputation. Although collectors love them for their sleek modern look, they couldn't overcome their performance problems. In fact, they often caught on fire. So you probably shouldn’t think about restoring it to working order.

But to truly understand the evolution of television sets, you need to understand a bit about their early history. In 1908 Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton, fellow of the Royal Society (UK), published a letter in the scientific journal Nature in which he described how "distant electric vision" could be achieved by using a cathode ray tube as both a transmitting and receiving device.

Originally, televisions were mechanical and simpler, consisting of a motor turning a spinning disk and a neon lamp. Scotsman John Logie Baird and American Charles Jenkins perfected the mechanical system in the mid-1920s. The projected image was only business-card size, but a magnifier enlarged the image.

Though Philo Farnsworth was working on an electronic television system in San Francisco during the late 1920s, it was engineer Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian immigrant working for RCA, who claimed the invention. However, the U.S. Patent Office gave the nod to Farnsworth in 1934 and RCA agreed to pay Farnsworth $1 million over the next 10 years to use his patents.

It's generally accepted that the 1938 DuMont Model 180 with a14-inch picture tube was the first commercially available electronic TV set in the United States. The 12-inch 1939 RCA Victor TRK-12 followed soon after, launching it at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the set’s brochure, RCA claimed   the receiver would allow an average family to see a program simultaneously at a cost for electricity of about one cent per hour. Viewers actually watched the image on a mirror because the long picture tube was mounted vertically in the cabinet.

RCA dominated the pre-war U.S. television set production, as well as the postwar technology, until about 1948.

Color T.V. sets appeared in the mid-1950s. RCA began to manufacture the first "mass-produced" color TV in 1954, the CT-100, called "The Merrill,"and also licensed its technology to 70 competing manufacturers. However, Westinghouse beat it to market with its H840CK15, a 15-inch set priced at $1,250. The company produced only 500 and only a few of those sold.

The CT-100 debuted at $1,000, about $7,400 in today's dollars, a bit pricey for the average American household. Within months, RCA reduced its price to $495, then the company recalled most of them and swapped them out for a 21-inch model. Fewer than 5,000 CT-100s made it to retail stores and fewer sold. Only about 75 exist today, perhaps 25 in working condition. If you can find a CT-100, you'll pay about $5,000 for it.

Even so, by the end of 1957, only 150,000 color sets had sold. That’s because there wasn’t much to watch in color at the time. The first national color broadcast was of the 1954 Tournament of Roses Parade from Pasadena, California. But only a handful of TV studios were capable of color broadcasting, with the transition to color by local TV stations done slowly on a market-by-market basis. By 1960, only RCA remained producing color sets.

Things changed dramatically with the premiere of NBC's Sunday night Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in September 1961. Other major shows followed in the 1960s and color sales began to surge and competition roared again. CBS began regular colorcasts in the fall of 1965, and NBC became the first 100 percent color network in 1966. In 1967, sales of color TVs surpassed sales of black-and-white sets.

After a lengthy duel to the death over which color technology would rule in the United States, CBS's partially mechanical color system or RCA's all electronic one—RCA emerged victorious. The broadcasting industry adopted the National Television System Committee's electronic color TV system, which was compatible with existing black-and-white T.V. broadcasting in the early 1950s and is still used today.

Though T.V. sets in the 1960s used vacuum tube electronics, that all changed by the early 1970s when solid-state electronics appeared on the market. This allowed for significantly more reliable televisions with better picture quality.

Most collectors want TVs from the 1930s and 1940s just the way they are. However, non-collectors want sets from the 1950s and 1960s that have been color converted to go with their 1950s or 1960s retro decor and in working condition.

There are millions and millions of discarded sets out there, so not all will be worth collecting. But there are key sets throughout each decade that collectors want to own, including newer ones from the 1970s and 1980s. You can pick up an early postwar set on eBay for $100 to $300. With newly made replacement parts and a good supply of new old-stock vacuum tubes available, you might take a stab at restoring one yourself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Simply Elegant Find

QUESTION: Some time ago, I purchased two wall pockets decorated with a matte green glaze in an antique shop while on a routine antiquing foray. Each has the word “Teco” stamped on the bottom along with a number. I have these hanging in my kitchen, but know little about them. Can you tell me anything?

ANSWER: You’ve stumbled on a real find. What you have are good examples of what’s known as Teco Ware, a type of art pottery produced in the beginning of the 20th century. While pieces originally sold for $2 to $5, none sold for more than $30 because the maker’s goal was to produce something of beauty that the average person could afford.

The Teco Pottery began in 1879 when attorney William Day Gates started the Spring Valley Tile Works in Terra Cotta, Illinois, to make drain pipe. But his goal changed after visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in nearby Chicago where he viewed exhibits of new matte glazes, produced by French potters. After his factory was nearly destroyed in 1887, he decided to rebuild, naming it the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company. When it reopened, he began working on an art pottery line after conducting experiments using local clays. In 1895, Gates registered the Teco trademark, deriving the name from the first two letters of his company's name, the Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company. He introduced a line of art pottery in 1899.

He derived his pottery shapes from line and color rather than elaborate decoration. While he created most of the 500 shapes he offered by 1911, many of the remaining Teco designs came from several Chicago architects that practiced the Prairie School style, including Frank Lloyd Wright. They had rejected the revival styles of American architecture of the 19th century in favor of using wood, stone and clay in simplicity of design. Ornamentation merged gracefully with the form. By 1923, the number of shapes had increased to more than 10,000.

Gates’ son, Major Gates, a ceramic engineer, invented a pressing machine and tunnel kiln, and also a glaze spraying apparatus called a pulischrometer to make production more efficient. In 1918, they acquired Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company. And the following year, opened a branch in Minneapolis.

Teco started making their green architectural vases in 1901, well before other art potters in the country produced similar wares. That’s why Teco vases are so valuable today. Gates produced his pottery from clays in Illinois and Indiana, and forms ranged from organic to architectural to geometric.

Teco pottery comes in hundreds of shapes, all cast from molds. Even exotic shapes that look handformed aren’t unique. The type of shape directly affects the value, with scarcer taller shapes more valuable. Gates marked the bottom of each of his pieces with a large “T” followed by the letters “ECO” and incised or stamped the shape number below it.

Gates’ goal was that every American home should have at least one piece of Teco ware. He believed that good design was as critical as the quality of materials and workmanship. So while some of Teco's more interesting pieces had at least some hand finishing, all of the pieces started with modern production techniques, including molds and power glaze sprayers.

Although Gates commercially introduced his line of Teco art pottery to the public in 1902, mass marketing of his products didn't really take effect until 1904. The event was the St. Louis World's Fair, where he exhibited vases, planters and other wares.

Gates exhibited art pottery with a green microcrystalline glaze which received many awards. It would also be the only glaze he used for several years. And although he introduced glazes in other colors–-including shades of yellow and gold, brown, cream, gray, orange, maroon, blue, gray, blue and purple—in 1909, none were as popular as those in various shades of green.

The most desirable pieces have been enhanced with a charcoal overglaze. Decorators used this secondary charcoal glaze to emphasize the negative space in embossed decoration or to highlight the detail found. in pieces with attached handles. Pieces with lowlights, or those that are mostly charcoal black are particularly striking.

Teco's organic pieces, an aesthetic blend of Art Nouveau and Prairie School featuring leaf and floral motifs, are more interesting, and as such, command higher prices than the geometric ones. The finest examples feature details such as swirling tendril and whiplash handles and/or embossed designs.

The typical Teco vase sold for $2-$5, while larger cost $7-$20. Today, that $2-$5 vase sells for a few hundred dollars, with fine examples commanding several thousand dollars. Major pieces that feature considerable hand finishing fetch anywhere from $20,000 to$100,000. But the majority of Teco vases and bowls sell for $500 to $2,000. However, there are plenty of rarer forms that can go for $10,000 or more. And even though the company produced pieces in other colors, collectors favor those in green.

Your modest wall pockets sell for about $1,500 a pair—a real find.