As long as there have been antiques there have been reproductions, and even the most studied antiquarian can be fooled by a clever fake. The key to minimizing your risk is to approach each potential purchase with a keen and discerning eye.
One of the great mistakes I have noticed with novice antiques collectors is that they, too, steadfastly seek perfection.
There is beauty in age. If a piece is indeed an antique, it has had a life before you found it and, like people, will show these years in subtle lines and wear. These signs of having been previously loved not only add to the appeal of a piece, but help to corroborate its authenticity. Much of this is simply common sense.
For example, with chairs, look for wear along the back where one would naturally grip the chair when moving it. Likewise, for chairs with rungs between the legs, the bottom rung is a natural spot to casually rest a heel and, therefore, wear here will also indicate age. This underscores the importance of considering how the piece would have been used and where is a natural place for wear.
With painted porcelain vases of the Old Paris or Meissen variety, look for a thinning of gilt embellishment. Thinning of the gilt around the neck of the vase or wherever one would naturally grip the piece certainly indicates legitimate age, as would a pale purple color underneath the gilt.
With large cased furniture such as chests or armoires, ALWAYS look at the back, even if you have to ask someone to move it away from the wall for you. The back should be dark – almost sooty – with age. This can be faked. So, be sure to carefully look in corners and at joints where a careless counterfeiter may have missed a spot while trying to replicate this aged effect.
Never be afraid to look inside. Remove drawers and look for fine dovetail construction. Also, stick your head inside and take a good sniff. A chemical smell can oftentimes indicate recent staining or stripping. What you’re looking for is a rich, vaguely sweet, musty smell.
With antiques, the more you look, the more you’ll understand – nothing beats experience. Spend some time just exploring and don’t be afraid to ask questions from an antiques dealer you trust. Any reputable dealer worth his salt will be happy to help you understand what you’re looking at. An informed client is a good client.