APPLES TO APPLES
Understanding the Price Differences in Antiques
By Joyce Horn, owner of Joyce Horn Antiques, LtD
Photos by Jessica D. Terrigno
From time to time, I will overhear visitors wonder why one antique in my shop is priced at $300 while something that seems similar is set at $3,000. There is some mystery implied, and I always embrace these opportunities to grab my teaching cap.
After many years importing antiques, I can say that the final price is most often determined by what I have paid. Fortunately, and with experience, I try to buy well and pass those savings along to my customers. Here are a few trade secrets for use on your next shopping trip.
Admitting that I am partial to French furniture, I’ll use the ubiquitous French commode (low chest of drawers) in this comparison. The commode has long been a popular and useful piece of furniture, popularized by Louis XV in the 18th century, and is still being made to this day. A date of 1800 and prior is most often used to denote the period in which furniture was handmade, but variance does exist in that date. Furniture made before mass production is more rare and individualized and will fall into a higher price range.
Here is a bit of history to aid in our lesson on how best to date the commode. Even though the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, France experienced a hiccup in the progression of the machine age as a result of that little upheaval called the French Revolution. In the latter part of the 18th century, France was not only without bread and in complete turmoil, but the country had also lost many of its movers and shakers to the guillotine. Louis XVI lost his head, the important furniture guilds of Paris lost their mentor and clientele, and the guilds were no longer licensed to take commissions and build furniture. Pieces that did survive are mostly in the hands of museums or the very rich and will always be signed or stamped by the cabinetmaker. However, ordinary people had furniture before and after the terror. Provincial cabinetmakers and talented individuals anonymously produced beautifully built pieces for family, friends and local clients, interpreting the period’s style with a regional bent. Many of these have found their way to market today.
So how can we determine if a piece is handmade? An antique should speak of living: age cracks and wood shrinkage are normal. Wear marks should make sense – around a key plate, sharp edges, or where a drawer has been repeatedly opened. If there has been any restoration, the evidence of the refurbishment should be subtle and appropriate. There should be a beautiful, mellow patina on the surface of the wood; a true patina develops as the wood oxidizes and is repeatedly cleaned and polished over time. Painted finishes should be considered purely decorative and the piece should not have been refinished; the application of shiny varnish is a killer.
A buyer may not know the dates associated with square and rectangular nails, but can easily recognize a modern round nail. Although there are many types of joints, machine-made drawer joints are perfect while hand-cut joints are irregular and imperfect, depending on the skill and inclination of the maker. Tool marks can be seen or felt on handmade pieces, and interiors of antique pieces that include old fabric or paper are a special treat. Expect to see wear on the feet of antique furniture from exposure to natural moisture and the countless passes of brooms and mops over time.
Adding to this discussion about price is the intrinsic value of a piece of furniture. Personal taste is important and is often subjective. Is the piece of furniture in a style considered classic or has the style been repeated throughout history? Does the style have a name and is it easily recognized? Consider the classic style associated with the fluted leg of a Louis XVI chair. Images of Greek columns and Roman architecture come to mind. Follow the curve of a cabriole leg to the American colonies similarly seen in the Chippendale style. Think of the Neoclassic grace of Sheraton and Hepplewhite. Examine how Medieval and Renaissance designs are seen in revival styles of Italian and Spanish pieces. Avoid overly done style (most everything Victorian) and explore if later styles such as Art Nouveau, Deco, or the current midcentury furniture trend will mix easily with existing or future décor. Ultimately, will the style stand the test of time?
When assessing prices, be sure the comparison is like to like. These same principles of evaluation can be applied to any piece of furniture, regardless of country of origin. Anyone can enjoy the process of confirming that a piece of furniture is new or old, made by hand or machine, and that the price conforms to that comparison. Understanding why there are disparities will allow you to be a more confident buyer and will increase your appreciation of the furniture and the cabinetmakers of the past.
Joyce Horn Antiques, Ltd.
7065 Old Katy Road