Vintage View: Pitfalls in buying genuine antique furniture

IF you watch the Antiques Road Show on BBC1, you will be familiar with that suspense-soaked pause before the expert examining a piece breathily declares it to be — genuine.

Vintage View: Pitfalls in buying genuine antique furniture

Genuine as described in most dictionaries means something ‘actually possesses the alleged or apparent attribute or character’. For vintage goods, being genuine can mark the difference between something with real value and something counterfeit that’s not legal to sell even at a village boot sale. However, things can be reproduced, or later works by a maker re-issued honestly. Reproduction furniture and smalls are the staple of many antique sales and galleries. What often makes the difference between assigning something as a rogue or a reproduction is the handling of the piece.

Starting with fake — in antique terms, fake is not just a mistaken reproduction, faked things crucially, are presented with the intention to deceive. They are the liars in the trade, and sold by the liars in the trade and also, unwittingly by others too incompetent or careless to know the difference.

The controversial ‘UK Fakes and Forgeries Report’ released on Sep 2 and circulated by Curtis Dowling of UKTVs Treasure Detectives suggests that 40% of antiques sold in the UK are fake. Accurate or not, the report polled 2000 buyers, 40% of whom did not have their pieces properly authenticated by a reputable dealer before purchase, with 70% all but knowing they were being deceived, and buying anyway.

Some fakes are true counterfeits: produced illegally they are illegal to buy or sell as they break the licence law. Marks from the supposed maker might be attached to a fake piece, there may even be paperwork with it, like a forged label from an exhibition, for instance, showing on the reverse of a painting.

Often identification is made subtly with a scrawled signature or suggestion from the seller. The buyer’s optimistic naivety does the rest.

New reproduction sold as antique or vintage? Fake. Reproduced pieces are made in the style of originals at a later date, and in the best instances, the celebration of that earlier piece will be a faithful and beautifully executed replica of a single piece or style.

A well made reproduction picks up a bit of wear and confusion can start about its age and source, so reproductions can get passed on as genuine originals. There’s no shame in purchasing honest reproductions. Whole genres of much loved design such as Sheraton, were eagerly replicated by the Victorians, and these pieces are now gaining value on their own merits.

Georgian reproduction is a bespoke area for some cabinetmakers today, such as English Georgian, enjoyed online at

A cheery commercial reproduction should never be presented as something else, something earlier, something original and made by a famous hand or design house. For example: A buyer is sold an Eames EA217 office chair as c1968 and made by Herman Miller in the US for €1,000, when it is in fact a plagiarised knock-off.

Similarly, if it is a reissue, made in 2000 by Vitra, it should not be sold as from an earlier period. The seller is feigning ignorance and taking advantage of the buyer’s inexperience.

If you want the full protection of consumer law, source your pieces from a dealer with a reputation to protect and insist on a descriptive receipt.

In the gloomier alleys of the market, there are professional and part-time traders who make a living being deliberately disingenuous, reaching for a quick sale and running to the anonymity provided by the classified ads, a blocked mobile number and a ropey email address.

The Internet provides thick cover for this species of seller and Ebay has some wonderful small works of modern fiction in the antiques section:

“This carver chair was found in my Nana’s attic during a clear out. I don’t know anything about antiques, but an elderly uncle told me it was a Churppendale.”

A few adorable misspellings are typical of this bit of retail theatre. A piece of machine-made tat arrives by courier to your door. The seller is hands-off, doesn’t have a clue. Did he ever say it was an 18th century chair? No. This level of seller will have no trouble re-distributing reproduction as genuine, and counterfeit as real. You have been warned.

Even an experienced eye can grow myopic and assign something reproduction as its original inspiration. Some fakes and counterfeits are produced with such searing quality and detail, they draw reluctant admiration from members of the legitimate trade. Reputable dealers will torture themselves over these rare blunders, and rectify their error immediately, taking on the financial loss as a painful lesson. All you have is your name in this game.

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