Terry Voorhies remembers her first antique purchase well. She and husband, Rand, then newlyweds living in New York, spent weeks shopping for a cabinet that would hold their stereo equipment and found what they thought was the perfect antique, which they proudly displayed in their teensy Manhattan apartment. Months later, Terry’s uncle, a Royal Street antique dealer, visited the young couple. After inspecting the purchase, he broke the news to them: Their prized “antique” was a poorly pieced together cabinet made of different styles and woods. The worse news was that the piece was worth less than half of what they paid for it.
Ah, the lessons we have all learned on this road called “Experience.”
Today, Voorhies is a much more knowledgeable collector. She is now a partner at Piranesi, a chic antique store on Magazine Street, and is on a quest to teach her customers how to develop an eye for authenticity. In fact, she’s an encyclopedia of information and enjoys taking the time to educate both antique novices and veterans.
Knowledge is power, especially when buying antiques. Voorhies recommends, first and foremost, that a collector read as many books and journals as possible. Once you determine what styles of furniture interest you, learn what woods were used in the particular periods that capture your taste. The French used a lot of walnut until the 17th century when blight wiped out the walnut trees. At that time, she says, mahogany became a favorite among English and French furniture designers as it was beautiful and affordable to import from the West Indies.
You should also learn about construction of furniture. Voorhies points to a mid-18th-century French armoire in her shop and rubs the doors. “See how the wood is slightly uneven with pockmarks,” she says. “Handsaws were used during this period, so the wood is expected to be uneven. The pockmarks are wormholes, a dead giveaway that this piece is real. If you can stick a pin into the pockmark, then the piece is new. It was put there to make the piece look old.”
Voorhies then points to the way the piece is held together. Pegs, she says, are the oldest form of construction and are usually square or uneven. The oldest nails used are iron; if your piece has a discoloration around the holes, that’s a good thing. Some fakers put old nails in new pieces, but there is no discoloration around those nail holes.
Carvings also tell a good story. In an authentic piece, the carving is not exactly perfect because it was done by a craftsman’s hands. In a later or machine-made piece, the carvings repeat the same pattern quite precisely.
Another clue to a piece’s authenticity can be found in the drawers. “Pull out the drawers,” Voorhies recommends. “In an old piece, there should be a little wiggle room. Remember, this drawer has probably been opened a gazillion times in its life and had many uses!”
Then flip the drawer. Look at the sides and the way the front is held onto the sides. Count the trapezoid-shaped dovetails. “In the oldest pieces, there were few dovetails, sometimes only one per side,” she says. “These were carved out by craftsmen and weren’t symmetrical. After the 18th century, there were three to five dovetails per side, asymmetrically placed and not exactly the same size. After the very late 1800s, the dovetails were machine-made, had eight or more per side, identically shaped and
evenly spaced. Those little dovetails can tell a very big story of age and construction.”
There are many other ways to determine if a piece is authentic, such as examining the patina. Patinas should be rich but not shiny or glitzy. Examine the decorative trims (the duller the gold, the older the piece). Learning about all of these traits requires time; copious research; and picking the brains of knowledgeable, detail-oriented merchants who, like Terry Voorhies and others along Magazine and Royal streets, have a palpable passion for antiques.
“Play the detective game whenever you buy an antique,” Voorhies says. “Step away from it, and see if something isn’t right. Take it outside, and look at it in good light. If you can, bring it home, and see how it looks in your home with your other pieces.
Most important, don’t get caught up in the rush. It’s easy to get excited about a beautiful piece only to find out that it isn’t what you wanted or needed. Then what?”
Piranesi’s Terry Voorhies suggests these qualities to consider before you buy an antique:
• Woods (Is the piece made of mismatched woods?)
• Construction (Feel for uneven woods, pegs, nails
• Wormholes (If you can stick a pin in it, it’s probably a fake.)
• Hinges (They should be a little rough with uneven spacing.)
• Carving (If it’s “too perfect,” it’s probably not old.)
• Patina (If it has a glossy, shiny finish, it’s probably a fake.)
• Drawers (Wiggle room a must; the fewer the dovetails,
the older the piece.)
• Hardware (If there are lots of holes behind drawer pulls,
it’s not original to the piece.)
• Locks (Older locks were flush with the back of the drawer
front; in newer pieces, locks protrude.)
• Decorative gold/silver (The shinier the trim, the newer