Antiques, Copies and Fakes: When Old Chairs Multiply

Tara Gleason Chicirda, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Tuesday, April 9, 2013Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
Walt Disney Museum
Side chairs, Philadelphia, PA, ca. 1765 and 20th century.

Side chairs, Philadelphia, PA, ca. 1765 and 20th century. Mahogany and white pine. Colonial Williamsbug Foundation purchase, 1939.

Stool, American, 1765-1950. Mahogany. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1952.

Stool, American, 1765-1950. Mahogany. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1952.

Council Chamber in the Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg.

Council Chamber in the Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg. The chairs around this table were reproduced by Wallace Nutting in 1933 for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to use in the Capitol.

Have you ever looked at a partial set of chairs and wished you had a few more chairs to round out your set? Sets of 18th century chairs that were broken up as they passed down through families were augmented in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries with copies. Like owners of today, these family members sometimes wanted a few more chairs to create an even number or round out a table. These copies were honest reproductions, made at the request of the owner with no intent on the part of the maker to deceive.

Some replacement chairs were made in the period, others in the 20th century. With the popularity of the Colonial Revival style in the early 20th century, some craftsmen chose to craft reproductions, sometimes calling them “the antiques of tomorrow.” But not all were made for honest reasons. Some unscrupulous individuals faked new pieces to make them look like old. They intended to fool a buyer into purchasing something that was not as valuable as he or she thought.

Identifying furniture fakes can be quite difficult. Even determining if a period reproduction is a copy or an original can sometimes require close inspection and knowledge of period techniques and practices. There is not just one element that indicates the age of a piece of furniture. Rather, the combination of design, construction, craftsmanship, evidence of use, color, materials and provenance helps to determine if a piece of furniture is a period copy, a modern reproduction or an outright fake. Close inspection of details is necessary for this process, and on occasion even the experts are fooled!

A pair of Philadelphia side chairs owned by Colonial Williamsburg exemplifies the difficulty of determining age and authenticity. The foundation purchased the chairs in 1939 as a pair that dated from the mid to late 18th century. It was not until the 1970s when a curator examined them closely that one of the chairs was determined to be period and the other a fake copied from the antique. The main factors that told the tale of this fakery were the quality of the carving on the copy, which wasn’t done quite as nicely or expertly as on the antique; the shape of the cabriole legs, which didn’t have quite as pronounced a curve; and the lack of credible wear on the bottoms of the feet.

What distinguishes this Philadelphia Chippendale-style chair as a fake, and not just a copy, is that the wooden surfaces hidden by the seat were stained dark brown to give the impression of oxidation and age, and the bottoms of the feet were shaved slightly to suggest that they had been worn down through use over time. In retrospect, while these details seem quite clear, unless you look closely at objects like these the close similarities between the chairs can fool you into thinking that they are indeed a pair.

Ms Chicirda earned a bachelor’s degree at Amherst College. She was a summer fellow at Historic Deerfield’s program in early American material culture after her junior year. After graduation, she left for the University of Delaware to earn a master’s degree from the Winterthur program in early American culture. She has broadened her knowledge by participating in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ summer institute and the Attingham Trust summer school.

Tara Chicirda started at Colonial Williamsburg in 2002, serving as associate curator, then curator, of furniture, and curator. She previously served Winterthur from 1996–2002 as a textile research assistant, curatorial assistant, assistant curator for period rooms and assistant curator for American decorative arts. She was a collections assistant for the New Jersey Historical Society in 1996.

Tara Chicirda’s contributions to the Chipstone Foundation’s American Furniture include “The Furniture of Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1740–1820” (2006) and “A Different Rhode Island Block-And-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch Pediments” with Wendy Cooper (1999). Ms Chicirda wrote “The Georgia Dining Room Revisited” for The Magazine Antiques (January 2002). Antiques and Fine Art published her “Different by Design: Urban and Backcountry Furniture Styles in Early America” (spring 2004) and “The Bayly Suite of Painted Furniture” (spring 2003).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Pull up a chair, or two, or three, of any form, style or size.


Walt Disney Museum, Presidio, 104 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. If you are using GPS, also include the zip code—94129—or you will be directed to downtown San Francisco, instead of the Presidio. Parking is plentiful, and free, on the parade ground and behind the museum.