Fake antiques have been around for centuries. A few, like Samson porcelain, are now antiques themselves, and have their own devoted collectors. But in general, antiques shoppers are looking for the best quality and authenticity. Here are some examples, both authentic and fake, to guide your decision-making.
Certain repairs, such as re-caned seats or new upholstery, won't necessarily degrade an antique. But pieces lose value when the wood has been refinished, and artificial patinas are undesirable. True patinas, built up through years of use and polishing, exhibit a warm and variable surface, like the example at left. False patinas may be identified by their overly regular finish.
Examine the primary woods. Those covering the piece's exterior should match from top to bottom. Likewise, any decorative carvings or motifs, along with the degree of oxidation, should be consistent. Be wary of instances where two or more exterior pieces seem to have been joined together. Also, examine the piece's secondary woods, which line the drawers and form the piece's skeleton. These components, typically of lesser quality than the exterior woods, should exhibit well-constructed joints and uniform wear.
To determine if a veneer is original, look inside a drawer. Often, hardware has been replaced, and the holes attaching it may be different from those of the original brasses. Pulls and knobs on a veneer leave behind a faint shadow when removed. If you see holes inside a drawer and no shadow outside it, the veneer may be new.
Worm holes are to be expected in an antique. But the pathways should ascend and descend through the surface, snaking around as the worms ate their way through the wood at random. Flat-looking worm holes indicate the wood may have been sliced through to create a new piece that simply looks old.
Craftsmen will go to great lengths to make a new piece look old, so check for appropriate wear. Common sense tells us that, in general, the right top drawer should be more worn than the bottom left. Chairs should have scuffs and scrapes from centuries of use, like those found on this 1780s wing chair. Nicked corners and worn feet make sense, too. But uneven wear should be questioned. Examine the details: Have the feet been chopped off, replaced, or extended? Quiz the vendor if the front or sides of a piece are particularly beaten-up.
Finally, consider the price and trust your instincts. A high price is not a guarantee of authenticity. But with antiques in particular, you get what you pay for. It's okay to buy something that's not what the tag says it is. Just make sure you're paying for the piece (like the obvious but successful marriage of a desk and cabinet shown at left) and not the label. And if something feels wrong, just walk away.