18th Century English Furniture Still Available

By Anne Gilbert


Go figure this! There is supposedly more 18th century English furniture now than the population at the time who would have used it. When you see examples at shows, auctions and shops, the wood is beautiful, as are inlays and the figured woods and carvings. Antique English furniture has always been something of a status symbol, not only to wealthy Europeans but to Americans.

Granted, the pieces you see at shows and quality shops are gussied up to look their best. But hear this! The purist collector knows that the look of wear is important, such as where the family dogs chewed on the leg means an authentic, not a reproduced, antique.

However, for some reason American buyers want their antiques to look new. The Brits know better. If all you are looking for is something that appears to be English antique furniture, no problem. When big money is involved, the finest antiques can and are being reproduced. Among the most expensive pieces are those of painted and inlaid satinwood, showing the French influence on English furniture makers in the third century. Runners up are early Queen Anne pieces and Charles II.

CLUES: Look for signs of wear in obvious places. For instance, on chairs, there should be wear on the arms and stretchers of a chair. Think of how chairs were used. They were often dragged across the floor. Hence, there should be scratches and some discoloring on the feet or the bottoms of the legs. And when you move a chair, you touch it on the top. There should be some discoloration from several centuries of being touched.

Beginning in the 19th century, English furniture of earlier periods was continuously reproduced. Small pieces such as Georgian lowboys were the most popular, as they are today. Next were chests of drawers, Pembroke tables and chairs. When looking at English (or any) antique furniture, first look at the style. A combination of styles could be a reproduction or a revival piece.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the style changes that happened toward the end of a period. Around the turn of the 20th century, wealthy Americans bought up anything that looked like English Queen Anne and George I, II, and III furniture. A common practice of fakers of the era was to add faked, heavily carved legs to an old chair. Any major alterations or replacements should lower the price. Consider that feet and finials have often broken off over the years. While furniture refinishers can work wonders, check for color differences that would point to restoration.

A so-called "married piece" is often passed off for a hefty price. This usually happens with a highboy, chest or bookcase desk. One of the problems with buying on-line is not being able to do a hands-on examination. Are the brasses original? How can you tell if you can't examine the inside of a drawer? Are the saw marks proper for the period? Circular saw marks indicate a 19th century piece. Eighteenth century marks should be cross-hatched. Since many countries copied English furniture, a study of woods used is important.

While the finest woods and graining were used on the outside of chests and bookcases, the so-called secondary woods were placed where they couldn't be seen. It is these woods that help identify the country of origin. For instance, fruitwood interiors were used in European pieces, but not in England.

Another tip. Feel under drawers and on the back of pieces that were meant to be placed against the wall. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were left rough.

English Queen Anne chest of drawers, sold at Sotheby's, $3,900. (Photo: Sotheby's.)

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