Monday, January 30, 2017
Far East Fakes
QUESTION: I recently purchased a secretary. From my research online, I think it’s done in the Napoleonic Egyptian Revival style. The piece isn’t in great shape, but I would like to know how to determine if it’s a reproduction or is, indeed, an antique, and if so, how old is it?
ANSWER: At first glance your piece looks like an elegant secrétaire à abattant or a drop-front desk from the French Empire Period. But upon closer inspection, you should notice certain discrepancies. While it may look like a piece from the early 19th century, it isn’t a reproduction, but a poorly made facsimile. That’s not a fake, but a piece of furniture made to simulate a particular style.
Since the 1990s, there’s been a flood of “antique” furniture coming into the U.S. from Indonesia. While high-end antique dealers and experts can tell immediately that it’s not authentic, the typical antique dealer can’t. A high-end dealer sells quality and provenance at up-scale shows while most shop dealers are just interested in selling to make a fast buck.
So what makes this drop-front desk a possible candidate for Indonesian facsimile antique furniture? There are three construction clues that even a novice antiques collector can use to identify Indonesian facsimiles: First, Indonesian furniture makers use a single species of wood throughout. Second, they hot-glue many of the joints. And third, they use common nails—both finishing and flathead.
Since there are few legal restrictions on how furniture makers can market or advertise wood, trade names have been developed to help promote little known wood or to make common woods sound more valuable.
The wood in Indonesian reproduction furniture, for example, comes from the groups Shorea, Parashorea, and Pentacme which grow in Asia and aren’t true mahogany. However, all of them can be legally advertised and sold as "mahogany." Two other generic trade names for these woods are Philippine mahogany and Lauan mahogany. The genuine mahogany used in fine antique furniture comes from a different group called Swietenia, originating in Central and South America, Cuba, Honduras, and the West Indies.
So why do Indonesian furniture makers use only one type of wood? The answer is simple. Since they’re using a lesser quality wood, they can afford to use it for an entire piece. Cabinetmakers of the 18th and early 19th century used expensive mahogany on the outside of a piece of furniture where it would be seen and lesser quality woods on the inside out of sight. It would have been impractical for a cabinetmaker back then to use mahogany for a glue block, for example, when no one would ever see it.
Another reason to use more than one type of wood was weight. Larger pieces of 18th and 19th-century furniture would have been too heavy if cabinetmakers used mahogany for entire pieces. Indonesian facsimiles are actually heavier than authentic antiques because they use dense Philippine mahogany.
Cabinetmakers of the 18th and early 19th century used dowels, splines, or special cuts, such as mortise and tenon, to join pieces of wood. They didn’t use nails because they cost more and didn’t hold the joints as well. And they didn’t use screws because they didn’t exist at that time. Indonesian furniture makers tend to use hot glue or common nails to join wood. Hot-glued joints tend to split with shrinkage. Plus the hot glue will fluoresce under black light.
Countersunk finishing nails are commonly used on Indonesian facsimiles. In fact, makers often use wider, filled in countersunk holes to simulate the effect of using wooden pegs.
Now let’s take a look at the details on this drop-front desk to see why it isn’t a real antique. Mahogany veneer has been applied to all the outside surfaces. However, the drawers don’t seem to be veneered but are made of solid pieces. And all the parts of the drawers seem to be made of the same Philippine mahogany wood. Because the wood isn’t real mahogany, it doesn’t have the beautiful grain pattern of the real thing. Also, the grain on the drop-front is horizontal but the grain on the drawers, like the sides, is vertical. Certainly all the grain on the front should be going in the same direction.
The brass fittings or ormulu are very poorly cast and finished. The escutcheons—keyhole surrounds—seem to be nailed rather than screwed into place. The brass fittings are of several different styles0—Baroque, neoclassical anthemium combinations, and egg and dart molding. The masks look more Phoenician or Egyptian, as do the heavy drawer pulls. The plaque in the center of the drop front is “Autumn” from the four-seasons series produced in bisque by Royal Copenhagen, but, it too, is poorly cast. The bows with streaming tails are the Baroque-style decorations. The overall effect tries to be elegant, but individually the decorations don’t go together.
Much of this type of furniture has surfaced in the American antiques market. Some unscrupulous dealers, knowing that their clientele wouldn’t know the difference, have imported it to sell in their shops. Other pieces have been bought and sold several times in the last 20 years and have successfully become part of the overall antiques market inventory. Sometimes one of these facsimiles will even make it to an antique show because the dealer hasn’t done any research or ignores the lack of provenance. In this case, the dealer will sell if for less, but still make a profit on the unsuspecting buyer.