There’s nothing wrong with good quality reproductions. You just want to make sure that you know that’s what you are getting. Here are some tips to help you tell them apart.
Wood. Antiques tend to not be made using one type of wood. Why? It simply didn’t make economic sense to use expensive wood such as mahogany in areas where no one would ever see it. That’s why the bottoms of drawers and joints of antiques might have lesser quality woods such as pine, maple. Reproductions tend to be made top-to-bottom from one wood and can be heavily stained to hide a poor quality wood. Check the underside, if the wood seems the same throughout the piece, it may be new.
Upholstery stuffing. Up until late early 20th century, horsehair and hay were used to stuff upholstered furniture. Synthetics such as foam were introduced around 1920s. Keep in mind that the horsehair or hay may have been replaced in an antique during an earlier reupholstering. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just no longer in original condition.
Signs of wear. Do the signs of wear make sense? An antique chair will show increased signs of wear at the end of the arms where the hands would naturally rest more so than underneath the arm. If the wear is consistent through the piece, it’s likely a reproduction that has been distressed to appear old.
Signs of age. Look for signs of cracks caused by shrinkage. They indicate that the wood has expanded and contracted over time. This is normal for an antique.
Antique marble. To find out if the marble is original to an antique, check the back of the piece. If the cut line at the back is jagged, the marble is likely original to the piece. In the 18th century, the tools to cut marble straight were not yet available. If the marble is smoothly cut, it’s likely post 18th century.
Hand carving. Run your finger along the carving. Is it bumpy or smooth? Hand carving is uneven and asymmetrical. Machine carving is smooth and symmetrical.
Dovetailing. Handmade 18th century dovetails are large and uneven. Machine-made dovetails are thin and even.
Construction. Phillips screws, staples and fiberboard are all tip-offs to reproductions. On antiques with large surfaces (tables, trunks, armoires), furniture makers used wide boards with an uneven width. Reproductions use narrow boards with an even width.
Gluing. On older pieces, cabinetmakers would reinforce glued joints with dowels, mortise and tenon etc. to ensure that they were good and sturdy. Poor quality reproductions will often only be glued which down the road will lead to them falling apart. Slip a piece of paper between the joints to see if it is reinforced.
Hardware. Vintage hardware has patina. It doesn’t have a lacquer finish to protect it from tarnishing and it isn’t shiny and new looking.
Rebuilt/refurbished/reproductions. Rebuilt furniture has some new elements added to it such as new shelves, backs on an armoire. It’s common in a lot of French country furniture around today. Refurbished furniture has been restored. Either the wood has been refinished or the upholstery, caning, rushing replaced. Reproductions have no old aspects. They are completely new. Whether something is rebuilt, refurbished or a reproduction is not necessarily a negative, just as long as you are know that you’re not buying an antique in original condition.
Insert caning versus hand caning. Inset caning (post 1900) has a spine bordering the caning. Hand caning (pre-1900) doesn’t have a border. Every now and then, hand-caned pieces were converted to inset caning when a hand-caner was not to be found. Check the underside of the piece to see if it’s been converted. The underside will reveal a series of holes that were used for the hand caning.
Buying reproductions. Buying good quality reproductions eliminates the frustration of hunting for the right piece. Having something custom made ensures you get exactly what you want. For example, the narrow dimensions of antique armoires 15 to 17 inches don’t suit today’s electronic equipment. Some dealers, including myself, do offer custom reproductions to overcome this predicament.
Buying antiques. The good news about antiques is they can be less expensive than reproductions because you’re not paying for materials and labor costs at today’s prices. Plus, each antique has a history. The patina, nicks and bangs on antiques reveal a full life of use just as the wrinkles on the face of an elderly person reveal a life that has been fully lived.