A Set of Three French Louis XV
Black Lacquered Tôle Cache-Pot
Painted in Chinoiserie Design
Polychrome Painted Porcelain Flowers,
mid 18th century
Advice to Collectors
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
People often complain that French furniture is too fancy. Genuine pieces of the eighteenth century are not fancy but copyists carve as many roses, shells, and other decorative devices as the piece will hold in order to produce an effect of richness. At first glance such a piece should be suspect.
Care must be used in buying painted furniture as paint is frequently an expedient to hide the new wood under it, but not all painted furniture is doubtful. The patina of time which is beautiful to a trained eye is not always appreciated and sometimes considered synonymous with dirt.
Genuine patina is a valuable adjunct which should be appreciated and respected. Original paint of the period is a rare joy to a collector, for if the paint is of the eighteenth century the piece it covers must necessarily be genuine.
Veneered furniture frequently gives itself away if it is modern as the color is too pale and too raw and sometimes too pink or too yellow to be of the eighteenth century. Nor has it the depth of color that it should have. Copies, no matter how cleverly made, never achieve the warm golden tone that sings. Antique veneer is uneven in thickness whereas new veneer which is cut by machine is always of uniform depth.
If, by looking at a piece, one is in doubt as to its age, it is well to touch and feel it. The sense of touch is, at times, very revealing, especially in furniture with carving. If genuinely antique, it will have been rounded and softened by time, and never have sharp edges. Old furniture has been dusted, rubbed, cleaned and waxed for something like two centuries and is soft and smooth to the touch. Clever fakers know this and try to file down the corners, brush vigorously with a wire brush and do what they can to produce the effect of usage, but their efforts are never completely successful and fool only the inexperienced. Knowing this, fakers often paint the pieces in question so the telltale signs will be obliterated.
With veneered furniture the sense of touch is equally useful, as antique veneer has waves, unevenness and other defects due to its age and reactions to climate and temperature.
Having looked at and touched the piece in question one can resort to a further test. Old wood from which all the sap has been dried through the years is light; new wood is heavier. Of course, there is the problem of upholstery which can be responsible for extreme weight. In that case a piece must be stripped down to the frame to gauge its weight. But if the object in question is a chair, this may be unnecessary for in turning it over one can generally be certain by looking at its underside. If not covered by paint or a preparation for gilding, the underside of a beech wood piece is of a rosy, warm, light-brown color which no one has ever succeeded in imitating and which, through practice, one learns to recognize.
The next point is to see if the chair is doweled and assembled as was done in the eighteenth century. If the wood shows signs of having been sawed or planed by a mechanical device one can be sure that it is modern. Here is where wormholes play their part for most beech wood furniture is subject to the ravages of worms. Some hardwoods, such as oak and mahogany may be free of them but the undersides of beech wood chairs which have not been waxed or rubbed, as have the outsides, are rarely without some trace of wormholes. This is true of all antique woods; only veneered furniture is the exception. Real wormholes run irregularly and form zigzag tunnels under the surface, while artificial wormholes go down directly and do not deviate. Exterior horizontal galleries may have been under the surface of pieces which were originally painted and revealed when the paint was stripped off.
One must look very carefully to be sure that the apron on the underside has not been covered with a cleverly applied piece of old wood showing wormholes, while the main structure is modern. The desired impression is, of course, that the whole frame is made in one piece of the same wood, but close examination will sometimes reveal that it is glued over the new wood as a veneer is.