Thursday, 14 November 2013

How to identify genuine French furniture

Whilst authentic French furniture is very distinctive, reproduction pieces have flooded the UK market in recent years. The thirst for all things French has led to a flurry of mass produced 'French' beds, armoires and buffets. These pieces, which aim to capture the essence of French style, are often poorly made and tend to retail at higher prices than originals. 

Since starting our business in November 2011 we have invested a lot of time in gaining knowledge about the items we sell. French furniture is unique in its quality, craftsmanship and style. 

Detail from an authentic Demi Corbeille French Bed 

Some sellers may unwittingly sell reproduction pieces believing them to be genuine, however, for the buyer the difference is huge. Authentic French furniture is a great investment. Genuine pieces will always hold their value, and more often than not, the value of pieces will increase. Before making any purchase make sure you ask the following questions: 

1. What Type Of Wood Is It?

Most vintage and antique French furniture is made of oak, chestnut or cherry wood. You will occasionally find pine pieces but they are not as common as in British furniture of the same era. If a piece is stated as being pine, make sure you double check all the other signs outlined below, particularly if the item is painted. Any piece that has a suspiciously 'orange' coloured pine interior should raise concerns!

2. What does it look like inside?

Interior of a genuine painted pine French armoire

Looking inside an armoire, vitrine, buffet or chevet can tell you a great deal about its age and provenance. This is especially important if the item has been painted. Sadly there are some unscrupulous sellers out there who will try and pass off a cheap pine wardrobe as a French armoire.

All genuine French furniture will show its age inside and out. Wood will often have an aged colour/appearance and quirks. Genuine provincial pieces were hand made and you can see the craftsmanship. Later 'revival' pieces, whilst newer, will still have signs of wear and use. 

Perhaps one of the most common tell tale signs is evidence of previous woodworm infection. It's rare to find a piece of genuine French furniture without a single worm hole!

3. What do the handles look like?

Authentic antique French armoires will usually have beautiful adornments, such as brass escutcheons and detailed handles. 

Dealers who specialise in British Edwardian and Victorian furniture will often be able to easily age a piece by the handles. This is also true of French furniture. British and French handles are uniquely different. 

  A handle from a Henri II style French armoire C. 1890 to 1910. 

 A handle from a French Louis revival armoire C. 1970

4. What do the door hinges look like?

 Detail of door hinges from two provincial French  armoires C. 1850 to 1890

Probably the biggest tell tale sign of all! French furniture does not have screw in hinges, as British furniture does. Older French armoires and buffets will have beautiful brass door hinges which simply slide onto the outside frame. Fantastic craftsmanship which doesn't require a screwdriver! 

More modern revival pieces will have no visible hinges at all. Instead they sit on 'pivots' which slot into the base and which allow them to open and close. Like older armoire and buffet doors they simply lift out of the frame with no screws involved.

Does it come apart? 

Nearly all French armoires are 'knockdown', this phrase means they are designed to knock down into smaller, more manageable pieces, making them easy to transport. Some genuine sellers may not know whether a piece knocks down but you can tell by looking at the inside. Older, provincial and L0uis Philippe style armoires will be held together with small wooden pegs. Use a torch to look at the areas where the joints meet, if small round peg ends are visible the item is genuine. 

French revival armoires are assembled using large bolt screws. These should be clearly visible where the cornice meets the sides, and at the base. 

If the armoire has no signs of being knockdown ask the seller for more clarification on the age and provenance of the piece.

The Author

Ali Stokes is the owner of the UK based online boutique Dazzle Vintage Furniture. The website specialises in selling authentic French furniture and accessories which have been imported from France. 

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Buying Antique and Vintage Furniture: An Antique Dealer's Guide 2

This is the second in a short series where we'll be showing you the pros and cons of buying vintage and antique furniture. This time we'll be focusing on buying from online auction sites, probably the riskiest place in terms of knowing what you're getting, but the best place in terms of variety and price. 

Online Auction Sites

Online auction sites have transformed both the buying and selling experience in so many ways. On the positive side it's now incredibly easy for anyone to set up their own business. Without the need for a bricks and mortar shop, you can start small with very little finance and grow your business in your own time. 

But is this new selling culture also good for the consumer? As we discussed in our previous post, when you visit an antiques shop you should expect the dealer to have an indepth knowledge of the items they are selling and to be able to date pieces correctly and not mislead. If a person with very little knowledge of antique furniture opened a physical shop their inexperience would quickly show, and just as quickly, their sales would falter. 

It's true that there are some great bargains to be had on online auction sites, but beware, not everything is what it claims to be. Antique and vintage furniture, as well as being practical and beautiful, can serve as a great investment. It's important therefore to know that what you are buying is genuine.  

Buying From Private Sellers

Obviously not everyone selling on an online site is a dealer, they are many who simply want to de-clutter or update their decor. The great thing about buying from private sellers is that they don't tend to make grand claims about their items. Indeed, their lack of knowledge can sometimes work to your advantage. I routinely see people mis-describing furniture, usually crediting it as being more modern or less inherently valuable than it actually is. 

You can of course ask the seller questions and ask for more indepth photos. But you should probably be wary of bidding too high. With private sellers you can't return an item, so if you make a mistake that's simply tough. Although you can always relist the item and get your money back that way if you are so inclined. 

When it comes to buying from private sellers there are really only 2 rules: 

1. If it is decorative - buy it because you love it.
2. If it is functional - make sure you educate yourself about the item so that you know the pertinent questions to ask the seller regarding the condition.  

These 2 rules also apply to buying from business sellers, however, be warned - this is more of a minefield! 

Business Sellers

Of course there are great business sellers out there selling on auction sites. We are constantly being told about the death of the high street and high business rates and rents mean that many dealers now have 'virtual shops'. 

It's common for dealers, such as ourselves, to sell from a website but to also have listings on an auction site. It's a great way of showcasing our items to a large audience. Of course the feedback system is there to help buyers make informed decisions, but what other things should you consider? 

1. Always make sure you read item descriptions carefully - sellers will often list items as 'French', but then in the description describe the item as 'french style'. You'll also see 'antique style' and 'vintage style'. This means that they aren't genuine and are probably new items made to look old. 

2. Also be careful of sellers misinterpreting or mis-describing the age of pieces. This might be a genuine mistake on their part but any dealer worth their salt should know the difference between Georgian, Victorian and Art Deco furniture. I routinely see items listed as Georgian, and in the case of French furniture, Louis XVI. If genuine these pieces would be highly collectible and command serious prices. If in doubt, email the seller and ask for clarification on the age of the item. Georgian furniture covers the reign of George I (1714-1727) through to the death of George IV (1830). Genuine Louis XVI pieces are extremely rare on the UK market and date from the 1700s.  

3. If the price seems too good to be true then it probably is. So you've found a 'Georgian' bureau for £150? If it was genuine no dealer could buy it for that, let alone make a profit. Any dealer selling it at that price either knows it's not genuine, but assumes you won't, or knows nothing about the items they're selling. The same is true of genuine French furniture. Because of it's popularity and the dearth of pieces on the UK market it commands a certain price. Often sellers with cheaper furniture will describe it as French in order to aid it's saleability  Again, if in doubt, email the seller and ask to know the date and the origin of the piece. 

The Author

Ali Stokes is the owner of the UK based online boutique Dazzle Vintage Furniture. The website specialises in selling authentic French furniture and accessories which have been imported from France.