Boston Home: Hunting Season
While you were collecting sea-shells at the beach this summer, antiques dealers were busy hunting for treasure of a different ilk. Some scoured dusty barns and attics for bookshelves and end tables, others haggled over sideboards at estate shows, and a few traveled to Europe to acquire armoires. All their hard work paid off — antiques shops are now fully stocked, and the selection of goods is the best it will be all year. And whether your style is Stickley or just something out of the ordinary, now is the ideal time to join the hunt yourself.
Of course, separating the authentic from the merely used is an essential skill for would-be antiquers. Luckily, you can hone this facility yourself — if you're willing to do a little homework — or you can place yourself in the hands of a trusted professional. Most dealers will tell you to find a reputable seller who stands behind his or her merchandise and who you can expect to be in business next week, next month, and next year. Beyond that, antiques hunting comes down to using common sense and trusting your taste.
The famed Brimfield open-air show hosts the broadest selection of wares. Some 6,000 dealers set up booths by a one-mile stretch of Route 20 for three six-day shows, one each in May, July, and September (the next is May 11 to 16). Despite its popularity, many antiquers have learned the hard way that Brimfield has its drawbacks. The show's sheer size encourages buyers to make snap decisions they might later regret.
You'll find the atmosphere much less boisterous if you head to neighborhoods where antiques dealers tend to congregate. Some of the best include Inman Square in Cambridge, Charles Street in Boston and its adjoining side streets, and Main Street in Essex on the North Shore.
For the finest collection of Arts and Crafts-era antiques, look no further than J. Austin Antiques in Cambridge. Owner Jeremy Austin got his start prowling for pieces in flea markets and poring over design catalogs that detailed late 19th- to early 20th-century style. Eventually his collection necessitated extra square footage, so he opened up his shop in 1998. His best advice for unearthing hidden treasures: Look carefully at each piece. Does it feel solid? Do the proportions seem right? “Quality is revealed in a piece's structural integrity,” says Austin.
A Room with a Vieux Antiques on Charles Street specializes in French furniture. Much of the stock once decorated small Parisian apartments and fits equally well into space-challenged Boston interiors. If you're furnishing an unusually small or unusually large room, one of the first things you should acquire is a tape mea sure. Before replacing the dining room table, for example, you'll need to sit down and measure how high the base must be to comfortably clear your lap.
Homing in on small details such as these is worth the effort. When it comes to handcrafted furniture, the quality of the marquetry can be a strong indicator of authenticity as well as workmanship. “You should be able to see the seams of each tiny piece of wood if it's real inlay,” says A Room with a Vieux owner Jeff Diamond. Most second-rate marquetry consists of wood that's been painted or stained in a pattern and then cut into veneer.
One detail to watch for: warps in the wood, which can be hard to see on a cursory examination but appear immediately if you lay a straightedge on the surface. Pieces that are scratched or chipped can be restored, Diamond says, but wood that has gone out of line can almost never be coaxed back.
You can be more cavalier about mixing styles, eras, and colors. Diamond and his partner, Ellen Nadler, admire the Gallic self-assurance that produces rooms in which “a Louis XV console has a modern sculpture on top of it and a gold rococo mirror hanging over it,” says Nadler. Such a postmodernist approach — pillaging eras for decorative notes of grace — can also work with mixing formal and informal, or city and country furniture.
A quick look around Danish Country Antique Furniture on Charles Street or its new branch in Wellesley Lower Falls proves the point. Seven years ago, after 13 years of selling Scandinavian country pine furniture, owner Jim Kilroy added lacquered Chinese country furniture to the mix. “A Chinese black lacquer bookcase can look great next to a pine table surrounded by mahogany chairs,” he says. The patina of time lets different styles of antiques work together harmoniously.
Some of these disparate pieces might first require a facelift. Most of the Chinese pieces Kilroy buys are encrusted in dirt while the Scandinavian ones often have been painted in shades ranging from garage-door white to confectionery pastel. The Chinese antiques must be carefully cleaned to avoid removing the lacquer; the Scandinavian pine, reduced to bare wood. The bottom line: Don't bypass the lipstick-pink desk, but be aware that it will take hard work to restore it to its natural beauty.
One man willing to put in that elbow grease is Ken Monroe, who, along with his wife, Sandy, owns Americana Antiques in Essex. With a focus on 1820s to 1920s American furniture, Monroe doesn't just clean up most of his stock — he removes the old finish and puts on a new one. The practice is as controversial as it is popular. “A lot of people tell you not to refinish,” Monroe notes, bringing to mind that classic Antiques Roadshow moment when the crestfallen owners learn that their John Townsend chest would have been worth thousands more if only they had left the finish alone. But as long as you don't have a museum-quality antique on your hands, refinishing can revitalize an old piece of furniture (especially one that has been hidden up in your attic or lurking in the basement).
Sometimes an old finish — or lack of finish — can be part of the charm. David Neligan of Neligan & Neligan Antiques in Essex prefers furniture that shows off its history, war wounds and all. “I love woods — the colors, the patinas,” Neligan says, running his fingers along the chestnut burl of a Queen Anne chair back. The little nicks and gouges make antiques individual: The marks, creases, and slight imperfections hint at the stories of the previous owners and blend personality into your décor. Neligan acknowledges that dining tables, which get a lot of wear, usually need to be refinished. He cautions against veneered tops because sanding them down can destroy their surfaces, exposing the less attractive base wood.
Possessing even a rudimentary knowledge of construction techniques can help determine furniture dates. Start by looking at the joints, Neligan advises. “If it's doweled, it's late 19th or early 20th century. Before that, everything was joined with mortise and tenon.” Translation: A piece pinned together with round dowels is not as old as one assembled with interlocking pieces of wood.
The distinction is small but significant. In the last quarter of the 19th century, a resurgence of interest in historic styles spurred manufacturers to churn out reproductions in large numbers. A Georgian desk made in Victorian times may be a bona fide antique, but a keen customer pays a price based on the period in which the piece was actually made, not made to imitate.
If you do make a misstep, don't retire your tape measure just yet. Even the most seasoned antiques dealers will concede they've made a mistake or two over the years, though few are willing to share the unsavory details. But that shouldn't paralyze you with indecision. If you follow your own instincts, the imprimatur of a signature or label isn't nearly as important as your own stamp of approval.