On opening the ATG last week, I saw a double page spread of pictures of pocket watches. Unfortunately these were all photographs of watches that had been stolen from a property in London earlier this year.  This had me thinking: How would one know the difference between a real antique pocket watch, and a very good fake one? Pocket watches aren’t my field so I thought I would write a blog about spotting fakes, copies and reproductions in an area I know about: furniture.

So what is the difference between reproductions, copies and fakes? Reproductions are honestly described as being made in the style of a certain designer or period. Copies are equally honest reproductions of individual pieces of furniture. It is the ‘faking’ that a collector needs to worry about. Faking is copying an item with the intent of deceiving. There is a lot of reproduction furniture on the market, and to the untrained eye, this could pass as real. Having said this, a 20th century reproduction of a George III armchair is still a sought after item: it is cheaper yet equally as elegant as the original. However, as technology and skill have advanced during the ages, it has become easier to pass off the reproduction item as original to those who know little on the subject. In deciding whether something is genuine or not, a knowledge of the construction techniques which were current in the period is required. This knowledge takes years of experience to build up, but here are a few key pointers:



Given the knowledge of the craftsman and the knowledge of the faker, it is often very difficult to detect a well made modern fake purely on stylistic grounds. However, fakes made in the past, i.e. made outside of the period it was copying, will often show a slight change from the original. It will show hints of influence from the period in which it was made as well as trying to copy the original. For example, a Victorian reproduction of a Chippendale chair could be slimmer or lighter than the original, as long as it is not hand carved. If it is hand carved then this again makes it more difficult to distinguish between the prototype and its copy, especially as a Victorian chair will have gained a genuine patina over time.


Colouring and patina:

The colouring and patina of a piece is usually a good tell-tale sign. With use and light exposure, wood mellows. The range of colour on a piece changes too. Looking at this mahogany veneered quartetto nest of tables below, dated to circa 1895, the two most regularly used (the top and the bottom) are fractionally lighter than the middle ones which have been more protected from sunlight and have been used the least. Whilst this isn’t an extreme case of sun damage, you can tell that the middle two tables are slightly darker, closer to the colour they all were when the piece was originally made.

On wooden or indeed painted furniture, there will be scuffs on areas that have been frequently brushed against – eg. The paint on the arms of a chair will have often worn off or the pattern will be less obvious.

Polish hardens slowly and with carved furniture, it will have eventually solidified in the deep carving. Where the polish in a deeply carved item is much softer than its surrounding areas, this piece of carving is probably more recent and the polish has been forced into the carving in an attempt to make it the same colour as the rest of the piece: in other words, that piece may have been restored or replaced.


Screws and nails:

Dates are important when looking at screws and nails. Screws as we know them were not introduced until around 1675 and were handmade well into the mid 19th century. A handmade screw had little to no taper, the slit on the head was very rarely centrally aligned and the handmade screw had a much shallower spiral than the machine made variety. It is also very rare for a screw to need replacing, except on a hinge or a mount. Until the 1790s nails were handmade. These were a lot less refined and uniformed than the machine made nails.



Often buyers inspect drawers when it comes to determining whether the item is 100% genuine or not. As the 18th century approached, the dovetail join on the drawers became finer. Modern dovetails always have regular pins and tails in a uniformed size as they were machine made. The wood at the bottom of a drawer is often split and this is not a negative sign: this merely shows that it is original and has shrunk, an indication of age. If the drawer is on runners, then there should be signs of wear on the on the underneath of it. If the runner has been replaced, it is often slightly out of the original position so this will show two separate marks under the drawer. If the runners and markings do not match, this would indicate that a whole new drawer has been constructed, replacing the original.


Locks and handles:

Handles on furniture often change, in keeping with the fashions of the times, or sometimes out of pure necessity as they may have fallen off through over use. To tell whether the handles are original, look inside the drawer to see if there are any indications of former fastenings or signs of holes that have been filled in, and on the outside of the drawers, look at markings around the existing handle that could be a sign that there was a different shaped handle once there.

Original handles and back-plates are often much smoother than new ones, due to constant rubbing or dusting over the years. There is often a build-up of a tiny line of dirt around the metal which has been missed over years during the cleaning process over the years.

Locks have often been replaced due to lost keys, or the lock has become loose or even ineffective. As a general rule though, steel and iron locks were nailed to the piece, whilst brass locks were screwed in.

There is a grey area in determining whether an item is genuine or not, or whether it has been over restored, or indeed ‘married’. The marrying of two parts of furniture is quite common and particularly with certain items. For example the tripod table is one of the most frequently married pieces of furniture. The bottom and the top may be of similar age, and therefore described as genuine, but they were not made for each other. The wood of the support should match the wood of the table, also showing the same signs of age. The feet are also a key: they should protrude slightly beyond the line of the circumference of the table top, demonstrated in the pair of Sheraton Period rosewood tripod tables above, dated to circa 1800. Whilst being a tell tale sign, this also helps a tripod table with balance!

To avoid any doubt in the legitimacy of an item, it is always better to buy from a trusted antique dealer and here at Reindeer Antiques, we have a wide variety of items for your perusal.


September 01, 2014 — Peter Alexander