How do I buy an original piece of period colonial furniture?
“HOW TO BUY AN ORIGINAL PIECE OF PERIOD COLONIAL FURNITURE”
Nothing happens by chance. In truth we are more blessed than we are lucky. Eight years ago we at the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, were blessed to have Mr R.K Moorthy and Jacinta Moorthy walk into our lives; this when we did not even know the worth, value or the know how of setting up a collection. With years of experience tucked under their belt they stepped up to the plate and freely lent their time and service to what has now become a great Archdiocesan Institution.
Such knowledge, I thought to myself, must be shared with others and so I engaged the two in a lively discussion on antique furniture. The joy and pleasure of living with fine antique furniture is available to many people who hesitate to make that first purchase because they don’t know how to go about it. Lack of knowledge, a previous bad experience with a dealer, or horror stories from friends are enough to deter many a potential buyer. Substantial sums of money can be involved, so caution is understandable and advisable.
With their wisdom of a lifetime in the field, the Moorthy’s revealed that there are 7 basic questions which should be answered before buying a Colonial piece of furniture or an Indian artefact, and these answers should be provided willingly by the dealer. If the dealer cannot or will not provide explicit answers, don’t buy from that dealer. These questions are designed to help in choosing a piece that will be enjoyed for years to come, and in purchasing it with confidence that you have not been taken.
Does this antique fit my purpose?
When a buyer is considering a particular piece, he should be able to discuss with his dealer the appropriateness of the piece for his purpose. Antiques can be bought for investment, for daily family use, or for strictly decorative purposes. A piece which has had major restoration may not qualify as an investment. If the piece is primarily decorative, then age will be less important than high style and finesse.
How does this antique rate in terms of quality of design, colour and finish?
The first thing you see when you look at an antique is its lines. Design is of great importance, because if the piece is not a beautiful thing in its own right, it really doesn’t matter how old it is or in what condition. Stand back and look at the piece as a whole to evaluate the success of its design. Colour is perhaps the next most obvious attribute and any fine antique should have a lovely warm mellow colour, a patina that only comes with a great many years of natural aging. Stripping can ruin an antique, while refinishing may enhance it. When done properly, with careful removal of old wax and dirt first, this procedure will not spoil the patina, which comes from the wood itself.
How is the piece constructed and from what wood is it made?
Learn to recognise the basic woods, as identification is important in determining quality of construction and age. The basic woods used in furniture are Teakwood, Rosewood, Padouk Wood, Mahogany and exotic woods such as Satinwood, Ebony and Calamander.
How do I know if it is a genuinely old piece or a reproduction?
Identifying the age of a piece requires years of experience, but one element you should look for that is very hard to simulate is, patination. Patination is the natural discoloration of wood in the areas which have not been polished, such as the back, the drawer lining, or the fly rails on tables. Patination should not be confused with patina, which refers to the polished surfaces.
What repairs and restoration has it had?
Nearly every 18th and 19th century piece of furniture surviving today has had some repair work. Inlay pops out as it shrinks, chair legs dragged over dirt and stone floors wear down, pieces of moulding come loose when old glue gives out, etc. But some repairs will have profound effect on the value of a piece, and you should look for these. Has a leg been replaced, for example – look for a joint and a difference in colour. Turn the piece upside down and look for newer wood, patches, screws, modern nails. If the surface is too perfect, be wary. Many pieces have been greatly reconditioned and passed off as original, are found in the market. It is fine to buy a piece which has had work done on it, but you should know what has been done before you buy, and your dealer should point out these repairs to you.
How do I know if it is a made-up piece, a marriage, altered in size, or an out-and-out fake?
A reputable and knowledgeable dealer is your best protection against unwittingly purchasing such a piece. But you should be aware that a whole industry has been at work manufacturing or ‘improving’ antiques, converting large chests-on-chest, for example, into more desirable and saleable small bachelors chests; changing pole screens into candle stands; adding upper bookcase sections to secretaries, converting chests of drawers into kneehole desks, etc. Careful examination may reveal many alterations. On a piece with an upper and lower section, look at the sides to be sure that the graining and colour are the same.
How do I care for this antique?
Extremes of humidity are as hard on wood as they are on people. A humidifier in winter and air-conditioning in summer will help to equalize the extremes of climate. Surfaces should be dusted with a clean soft cloth or a feather duster. Wax should be applied no more than every six months. Oils and sprays should never be used. Ask your dealer if any special care is necessary for your piece. More care must be taken, for example, with a veneered top to a dining table than with a solid top, as veneer is more susceptible to heat damage.
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Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.