For a collector of antiques, the value of a piece is rooted as much in its history as it is in mere appearance and utility. The rich story implied by the visible wear and tear, imperfections, and signs of hand craftsmanship lend a certain intangible value not found in contemporary furniture. It is therefore very important for the prospective owner to be able to recognize the marks of a true antique that set it apart from modern reproductions. The easiest way to tell the age of a piece of furniture is manufacturer’s markings and certificates of authenticity, however, the majority of pieces you are likely to encounter are not so easily verified. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of techniques available that can provide a relatively accurate assessment of an antique’s true age.
The first, and often simplest step involves inspecting certain areas of the furniture for telltale signs of age. Less visible areas like the bottom, interior, and back of a piece will often show signs of hand crafting as well as revealing construction techniques that can help to zero in on the period of origin. Drawers are perhaps the best place to look when first inspecting a piece since they are the location most likely to show wear that has accumulated over the years. Cabinet doors and hinges can also reveal clues to the age of an item.
Tool marks from hand saws, planers, and chisels give an idea as to whether the piece was made before the era of mass production. Some craftsmen still produce furniture using traditional techniques so this is not a guarantee of age, but the lack of these marks means a piece was likely made after the late 1800’s when power tools and machinery became more prevalent.
Hardware like knobs, pulls, screws, and nails can also tell a lot about the age of a piece. Screws, for example, were not even used until the 1700’s and were uncommon even then. Those that were used were very rough looking and irregular as they were entirely hand made. The first machine-turned screw was not manufactured until 1848, so you can be certain anything with regularly spaced threads and perfect points originated after the mid 1800’s.
Materials also reveal a lot about an item’s origins. Many periods are known for their use of certain types and grains of wood. The same goes for fabric patterns and upholstery techniques. Again, this is no guarantee of age, but when combined with other appraisal techniques it can help place a piece of furniture in a certain period. The same can be said for stylistic elements, however, since many styles underwent revivals in the 1800’s, these methods are best combined with others in order to provide an accurate assessment of age.
There are countless ways to discern the true age of an item, some more reliable than others, which means they are best used together to form a better picture regarding the origins. We will continue with a series of articles that provide a more in-depth look at some of these methods so you can try your hand at reading the history written into each antique.