When the Fakes Look Authentic

Question from a reader: “I have seen websites like Mr. Follansbee’s with instructions on making these [joint stools] using absolute period techniques and tools or offers to buy one. I’ve seen stools that look (in pictures) to be authentic but which are noted as being early 20th century. So – once it had acquired an old patina – how would you know how old it really was if someone used authentic tools and techniques? Could you tell from the oak itself? Just curious.”

Peter Follansbee, one of the authors of “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” responds:

Hmmm. This is the stuff of legends. I remember reading about the Armand Lamontagne “Brewster” chair before I had ever made a chair myself.

Many years later I learned a lot about museum pieces, antiques, early reproductions and various other permutations of historic furniture (restorations, repairs, “marriages” etc). To be really comfortable making judgment calls takes a lot of exposure to period pieces – not just photographs, but hands-on time with numerous pieces. Even then, there are times when someone shows me a piece of joined furniture reportedly of the 17th century, and I am left with nothing to say. Sometimes, it just “feels wrong.”

As far as the stuff I make, how can one tell after years of use that it’s late 20th/early 21st-century work and not a 17th-century piece? I believe that dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) requires sapwood to be able to tell the approximate date that the timber was felled – and I remove most or all sapwood, because it’s not strong enough and sometimes prone to decay. A few of my joined chests have some sapwood in the panels – but you’d have to disassemble the piece to test these. If you were at all convinced the piece was a period piece, then you’d be reluctant to disassemble it to test it.

The piece’s surface finish could be tested and would probably be identified as modern linseed oil (hardware store’s boiled linseed oil with its additives, versus period linseed oil, made from flax seeds and little else). But again, you’d have to spend some money to have such tests done, and even then an argument could be made that the finish was added afterwards.

So when it comes down to tool marks, style (carving patterns, turnings, moulding shapes), wood selection and form, it takes a trained eye to evaluate a piece. My carved boxes, for instance, are easy to spot in most cases. I tend to carve the fronts and sides of the boxes, whereas most period ones I have seen are carved on the front only, with a few exceptions. I often use wooden pegs to join the box’s carcase, again only rarely encountered on period examples. These usually are nailed.

Joint stools are easier to sneak by because there’s little to go on. When we were working on our study of the joint stools that eventually became the book “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” Jennie Alexander concocted a method in which we could embed a coin in one of the mortises so that half of it was exposed and half was entrenched in such a way that it was clearly part of the construction process. I’m not sure she ever employed any of the proposed methods. I would need to consult our archived correspondence, and there’s no time to delve into those reams of papers. I’ll leave that to my kids.

Some of the stuff I have made for 19 years at Plimoth Plantation might cause a ruckus if it ever gets out in the antique market. There it’s used in such a manner that it shows wear and tear, develops a deep patina and even shows decay, repairs and other features common in 350-year old antiques. The pieces have accession numbers stamped on them, but so do most museum pieces. I have photographed most of my work over the years, and so one could match up my photos against a piece that might show up for sale as an antique, but that’s pretty extreme.

For an example of the kind of patina my pieces develop at Plimoth, click here.

The early 20th-century reproductions are usually easy to spot. They rarely use riven stock, and English ones would likewise not exhibit pitsawn stock…so the smooth interior surfaces of a joint stool, for example, are often a giveaway. I have seen other examples wherein the pins in the joints don’t exit inside the stiles… things like that are a dead giveaway.

For a further discussion, read this good article by Harold Sack.

— Peter Follansbee

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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7 Responses to When the Fakes Look Authentic

  1. Anyone who is interested in collecting furniture should read Charles Haywards “Antique or Fake? The Making of Furniture” which is also a great read on the history of furniture construction. Another must read are both books by Eric Hebborn “Born To Trouble” and “The Art Forger’s Handbook”. Hebborn was a painter and the books are about forging art, which is easier than furniture by a lot but his general observations about forgery are worthwhile reading because he has practical experience in making forgeries that experts said were genuine because he played to their sense of feeling about a work.

    • Sean Hughto says:

      Joel, why do you say that forging art is “easier than furniture by a lot?” I think I might be able to forge a joint stool, but I think the Mona Lisa is likely beyond my skills.

      As far as playing to experts “feeling,” I think that raises an interesting issue. If the object is aesthetically exceptional, isn’t that really what is important. Would you rather have a masterpeice by a new painter in your home or a mediochre work of a painter from 200 years ago that happens to be worth more in the “market” merely because of age and rarity?

      • In both areas you need a certain amount of skill. but given enough skill to paint a mona lisa or make a bit of furniture it’s easier to fake a painting than fake the wood, tool marks, etc of a piece of furniture.

  2. David Pickett says:

    During the 20th century, there was from time to time a heavy demand for antique furniture in the UK. When there’s a demand, but limited supply, the less scrupulous (or those needing to make ends meet any old how) will find ways to enhance the value of a piece, or in some cases, to out-and-out fake it. All manner of practices developed to ‘distress’ newly made pieces to make them look old. Not so much done these days, as both buyers and the better dealers with a reputation to maintain have become more savvy. However, there are several firms producing and selling ‘reproductions’ – including high-end furniture – and being honest about what they’re doing.

    How do you spot the fakes? If they are well done, it’s not easy. Examining backs, insides and bottoms for bandsaw or machine planer marks might be one indication. Finding ‘antiques’ with tops fixed by shiny steel brackets and pozi-drive screws might rouse suspicions…it’s been done…

  3. Dean says:

    I’ve seen articles where they used portable X-Ray equipment to photograph the insides of furniture. I noticed that was done in the Brewster chair article. Is an x-ray a good “tie-breaker” (last thing to try) or is it better to start with an x-ray, assuming of course that one has access to such equipment? I imagine an x-ray won’t always reveal the real from a fake, but it seems to be helpful.

    I know portable X-Ray units can be rented, and in the article below, in the second picture, you can see how small these units are. Please scroll down to see all of the x-ray photographs.

    http://nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/seeing-beneath-the-surface-at-knole/

  4. markdorman says:

    a lot of good stuff on the Harold Sack link; thanks for that.

  5. Eric Bushèe says:

    A few notes on dendrochronology: It is necessary to have the sapwood, or latest growth rings, in order to accurately date the felling of the tree. Likewise, the pith is needed to assess when the tree was “born”. The heartwood in between contains the bulk of the rings used in sequencing, as the spacing of the rings allows the dendrochronologist to date the wood. When I was doing archaeology, taking wood samples that could be used in dendrochronolgy was delicate work. Much care was needed to try and get as much of the bark as possible (ensuring you would get the sapwood), and this part of the wood was always the most fragile.

    That being said, heartwood alone can be dated using dendrochronology, you just won’t know when the tree was born, nor when it was felled. So, for example, if you build a piece from a 100 year old oak tree, analysis of the heartwood would indicate the tree lived in the last 100 years. It might have been a 300-year old tree that was cut down decades ago, or it may be a 100 year old tree that was cut down yesterday, but you would be able to tell that it lived in the last century. That alone would rule out a 17th century date for the piece. Now if you used a 400-year old oak to build a joint stool, then it might get trickier with no sapwood.

    Also, not all trees lend themselves to tree ring analysis. A tree must have roots shallow enough that its growth is affected by annual rainfall and weather patterns. In a wet year, the tree will grow more, in a dry year, less. Two wet years in a row will yield wide(r) growth rings, while a dry year will produce tighter rings. It is the relationship of wide, tight, wide, tight, that allows us to create a master sequence. When you get a piece of wood, you try and fit its pattern of rings to the master sequence. Pines work great for dendrochronology. The pines of the four corners region of the American Southwest have some of the most detailed and accurate tree ring sequencing in the world. The sequencing is so complete, whole logs can not only yield the year in which the tree was felled, but the season in which it came down. That level of dating precision is unparalled for a prehistoric society. Only written records in historic archaeology can get you better. Oaks, particular in England, have also proved favorable for dendrochronology. Some trees, though, cannot be used. Mesquites, for example, send down deep tap roots to the groundwater. Having a constant source of water means they are not as affected annual rain patterns. Thus their growth rings yield no wide, tight, wide, tight pattern from which to date.

    If I built a joint stool, there would be no mistaking it from a vintage one because I sign and date all my pieces. (for, you know, when I’m famous 300 years from now).

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