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Keeping it Real: Finding Fakes and Forgeries

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by Emily J. Weitz


It’s yard sale season in the Hamptons, soon to be followed by antique fairs. Crafty shoppers wake up at dawn to track down the find of the year: an 18th century bureau or a vase carried out of war-torn Europe. But with all these uncertified people selling their stories as well as their wares, the question is: how do you know it’s authentic?

Charles F. Hummel, curator emeritus and adjunct professor at Winterthur Museum in Delaware, has been studying this subject for most of his life. He plans to give an in-depth talk on the subject of fakes and forgeries in the antique world at the East Hampton Historical Society next week.

“This is a consciousness-raising talk,” says Hummel. “Collectors, curators, and people concerned about authenticity have to know that this is a problem that goes back to antiquity.”

Hummel cites documented examples of forgeries in the United States as early as 1841.

“There was an extensive interview with a faker in Maine published in a Maine newspaper that year,” he says. “I was shocked. I didn’t realize it started that early.”

It’s not that fakes and forgeries are an everyday thing, Hummel clarifies.

“The biggest problem isn’t so much fakes and forgeries at all,” he says. “The biggest problems are the well-crafted handmade reproductions that have passed over the line. Once they’ve crossed that line, they never go back. That’s a major problem for collectors.”

Hummel says that anyone who collects with frequency is bound to make a mistake some time; and he, too, has fallen victim. He’ll share his mistakes at the talk, as well as why he made the mistake and how it could be avoided.

“The more people specialize in what they collect,” he says, “the more experience they’ll gain in being able to tell whether an object is made in the period or not.”

Once someone carves out a specialty for themselves, they’ll also create connections with dealers they trust, and will be in a better position to buy mindfully.

“Once you specialize, you can deal with dealers who specialize,” he says. “If you work in ceramics, you only work with dealers who sell ceramics. If you specialize in prints, work with dealers who sell only prints. Dealers who sell across the board general material won’t be experts on everything.”

Another thing collectors need to do if they’re serious about the business, Hummel says, is start a library. It should consist of lots of images, and a great collector will have these images committed to memory. That way they can more easily identify when they’re out in the field. There are little giveaways that, if you know the time period you’re looking at, will let you know whether something is authentic.

“Say you’re collecting brasswares,” says Hummel. “Antique brass is light in weight, and modern brass is heavy. Same with ceramics. Antique ceramics are light and newer ones, the body is heavier.”

Another item people collect are prints. The simplest rule, he says, is that prints should not be collected in frames.

“Many prints survived into the 19th and 20th century,” he says. “From those original plates, people have made restrikes. If you are interested in a print made in 1728, you should not have to pay the same for the one struck in 1860… I’ll be giving all sorts of tips like this at the talk.”

Hummel will be discussing some of the primary collections people tend to have: In the morning, he’ll talk about ceramics, ironware, prints, pewter, and silver. After a break for lunch, he’ll give an extensive talk on furniture.

“This has been a part of my life and career for over fifty years,” says Hummel. “When I first started training people for careers in museums, I had to put a strong emphasis on determining authenticity of objects. If you are writing about something, you don’t want to be writing about something that isn’t what it purports to be.”

Hummel hopes the talk will not discourage people from buying, but rather will help to inform them so they can buy more conscientiously.

“We’ll look at a lot of images, assessing our powers of observation. I’ll show some comparisons, ask who would buy one of these… The purpose of the talk is to give them enough information to prevent them from letting their enthusiasm overcome their good judgment.”