How do I know if my Furniture is Antique?

Finding information about antique furniture is one of the more challenging areas of research for the collector. The vast range of periods and styles, as well as the manufacture of reproductions and fakes, makes the identification and authentication of furniture particularly complicated.

Value of antique furniture depends on criteria:

  • Rarity
  • Provenance
  • Quality
  • Condition

There are several ways you can spot a piece of antique furniture:

Is it old? First, determine if the  antique is old. If it’s not old, it can’t be antique. General antique stores label objects 50 years or older as antiques whereas fine antique dealers consider a piece to reach maturity at 150 years.

Remove one screw in some inconspicuous spot. Handmade screws will have irregular widths between the spirals, running the whole length of the shaft. The slot in the head may be off-center. A single slot screw is another sign of age. Screws weren’t made completely by machine until 1848

Open doors and drawers. Also examine the drawer’s runner for signs of wear — the indication that it’s been opened thousands of times over the years. If the piece has drawers, remove a drawer and look closely where the front and back of the drawer are fastened to the sides of the drawer.

Inspect joints. If a joint was dovetailed by hand, it has only a few dovetails, and they aren’t exactly even.If it has closely spaced, precisely cut dovetails, it was machine-cut. Handmade dovetails almost always indicate a piece made before 1860. (Machine-cut furniture wasn’t made until about 1860. ) Exact symmetry is another sign that the piece was machine-made.

Wiggle knobs. Look carefully. Examine the bottom, sides, and back of the drawer; if the wood shows nicks or cuts, it was probably cut with a plane, a spokeshave, or a drawknife. Straight saw marks also indicate an old piece.

Inspect the mirror. Until 1800, all the antique mirror glass in America was imported. Antique glass is very thin, measuring less than 1/8 inch thick. Exact symmetry is another sign that the piece was machine-made.

Study the finish. Test the piece in an inconspicuous spot with denatured alcohol; if finish dissolves, it’s shellac. If the piece is painted, test it with ammonia; very old pieces may be finished with milk paint, which can be removed only with ammonia.

Check the material.The wood itself is the final clue. Very early furniture  (before 1700) is mostly oak. From 1700 on, mahogany and walnut were widely used as they became more available. Better furniture is predominately made with maple, oak, walnut, cherry, or mahogany.

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