Buyer Beware When Shopping for Antique Furniture Buyer Beware When Shopping for Antique Furniture

It’s easy to get scammed by an antique entrepreneur when you don’t know what to look for. Antique shoppers need to develop a healthy sense of skepticism before acquiring any piece of antique furniture. It’s easy to mistake a good fake for the original. You really have to ask yourself how you know that the piece is genuine.

Of course, reading about the history and design of furniture will help you avoid being cheated. So will studying books such as Myrna Kaye's Fake, Fraud, or Genuine?: Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture (Bullfinch Press, 1991). Kaye virtually screams "Caveat emptor!" on every page. The following passage (page 195) illustrates what can happen, even to an experienced collector:

"A pedigree, whether presented in a shop or at an auction, should be evaluated as a bit of history that may well mean nothing. Some of the antiques that are 'ex collection' of prominent early collectors are, quite simply, early fakes and frauds.

"One story about a pedigree and a dealer should suffice. The dealer sold what were purported to be old, fine, and rare Chippendale chairs to a prominent collector, who quickly discovered that they were copies, not antiques. The collector demanded a full refund for the frauds. The dealer, still claiming that the chairs were genuine, offered instead to buy them back at $1000 more than the collector had paid. The collector agreed to the strange offer.

"Once they were returned to the shop, the chairs resold quickly. With a canceled check to prove their recent purchase, the dealer eagerly divulged the chairs' provenance, which now included the famous name of the prominent collector."

Collectors are not the only ones troubled by such questionable transactions. Dealers themselves are equally concerned - so much so that they have formed organizations to protect the public and themselves from illegal and unethical practices. One of these organizations is the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, Inc. (AADLA).

The membership directory for AADLA states that the league is a non-profit membership organization "devoted exclusively to the best interests of dealers and buyers of antiques and works of art, and to the encouragement of educational and cultural activities in the Arts generally."

Fine words, and they are more than a high sounding slogan. According to James Frankel, League Secretary, dealers can apply for membership, or they can be nominated by members. After nomination, the applicant goes through a three-step review process before approval. "We want serious members," says Frankel, "not just dealers who hang plaques on their walls."

The organization takes its self-policing duties seriously. Although dealers' sources and finances are considered confidential, the league reserves the right to inspect its members' inventories to see that all are following the organization's code of ethics. All invoices and memoranda of sales must contain a fair description of the articles sold, the date or origin, the maker, if known, and condition or repairs. Any member who does not adhere strictly to the Code of Ethics is expelled from the League.

The AADLA is an outgrowth of the Antique Dealers Luncheon Club, which on January 7, 1926, met at the Madison Hotel in New York City and formed the Antique and Decorative Arts League. In 1942, the name was changed to the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, Inc., which now has 99 members in major markets in 16 states and Canada. Each year the League contributes to the granting of a prize to a student for study, research and the publishing of articles and books on antiques and fine art.

The League's own publication, Connoisseur's Quarterly, contains articles about artists and their work, about collectors and dealers, museums and exhibitions, as well as travel essays. The magazine is filled with well-lit, beautifully composed, full color photographs of individual pieces and rooms filled with collectors' choices. All the photographs, even in the advertisements, are detailed enough to appear in art history text books.

Connoisseur's Quarterly is printed, 8 1/2" x 11", on clay-coated paper, heavy enough to last many readings. You can subscribe ($17 for one year, $30 for two years) by calling 1-888-313-6086.

The League also has a web site (www.artantiquedealersleague.com) that lists all members and links to those members that have web sites. Typical of the information that dealers give to potential customers can be found at the web site of Woldman & Woldman of Alexandria, Virginia. Accompanying a photograph of a side chair is the following text:
"General Description: A Rare Set of Six Classical Carved Mahogany Side Chairs in the Egyptian Taste, attributed to the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe, New York, circa 1830.

Details: A fully developed and masterful interpretation of the Egyptian influence on the American Restoration style. The lotus blossom and leafage carving on the splat and stay-rail are of a distinctively high quality. The wood is beautifully figured. Phyfe always selected the finest materials for his furniture. The chairs retain their original finish, which has been cleaned and polished. All slip seats are also original. Closely related to a set Phyfe made for his daughter, Eliza Phyfe Vail, in 1830, cf. Nancy McClelland, Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency, Plate 109. See 19th Century America, No. 77 for a chair of identical design made for the Bloomfield Family of New Jersey, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Height: 33 inches; Width: 17 inches; Depth: 19 inches."
Other members' web sites have e-mail connections so you can contact them directly, while others have links to museums and interior designers. Some list prices, others require that you contact them to discuss the item for sale.

The League is also one of the founders of La Confederation Internationale en Oeuvres d'Art (C.I.N.O.A), or The International Confederation of Dealers in Works of Art, whose member dealers are from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, the USA and 15 European countries.

The League will sponsor The Connoisseur's Antique Fair in New York City at the 26th Street Armory on Lexington Avenue in the Gramercy Park area. The show will have a benefit preview the evening of November 15, 2001, and it will be open to the public November 16-November 19. This is the League's first sponsored fine arts and antique show, and all items will be strictly vetted. For more information about the show and the Art and Antique Dealers League, Inc., write them at 1040 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021. Or call 212.879.7558.

As careful readers know, David Dannenbaum was trained at the University of Texas (BFA) and Florida State University (MFA), but was educated at the Brooklyn Public Library, the Gotham Book Mart, and various museums, flea markets and antique shops in the New York City area. His articles have been published in The New Orleans Review, West Coast Peddler, and Streams of William James. He and his wife live in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Interior Design

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