Talking Fakes With Mr. Hummel

Charles Hummel - “Caveat Emptor: Fakes and Forgeries”
Charles Hummel outlined the pitfalls of both amateur and professional antiques collecting during “Caveat Emptor: Fakes and Forgeries” at Clinton Academy on Saturday. Morgan McGivern

    Many people here on the South Fork may subscribe to the old antiques store aphorism that “the only one interested in what your grandmother had was your granddad,” especially when it comes to “brown furniture,” dark handcrafted pieces with a history of more than 150 years or so.
Yet, early American antiques are still big business, even if their general popularity has dropped in favor of the clean lines of midcentury modern favored by today’s decorators and style makers. And if there is money to be made in something, someone will certainly find a way to do so dishonestly.
That is why Charles Hummel’s presentation at the East Hampton Historical Society, “Caveat Emptor: Fakes and Forgeries,” still had much relevance for anyone cruising the booths of the East End summer antiques shows or who has any interest in objects with a past or patina.
Richard Barons, the society’s executive director, noted in his introduction that more than 20 people were on the waiting list for the event, which was presented by one of the pre-eminent scholars of Americana and an expert in what constitutes a fraud in this field. Mr. Hummel is a retired senior deputy director of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and was responsible for forming its study collection of faked and fraudulent objects in the 1950s to help its staff and students develop an eye for the objects that in his words “don’t sing to them.”
Mr. Hummel observed that the tradition of faking antique objects can be traced back to ancient Rome, when “falsely aged marble sculptures were sold as the work of Praxiteles or other Greek sculptors” whose works were prized by the Romans for their grace and beauty over the colder realism of Roman sculpture. It is the origin of the saying “caveat emptor,” or “buyer beware.”
And, as in ancient times, today there are still those who would have us believe that a 1920s reproduction is the same as the 1700s original. With recent auction values as high as $12.1 million for a bookcase and $4.8 million for a painted chest, there are plenty of reasons why someone might be tempted to enter the marketplace with less than authentic works. Since auction houses and the American courts offer little recourse for those taken, buyers do need to have their eyes open and their wits about them.
    There are several things buyers of antiques can do to protect themselves. The most important is to educate the eye using books, auction houses, and dealers to develop a familiarity with high-quality examples, whether of glass, porcelain, wood, metal, paper, or some other collector’s preference. “Develop a personal library of visual material of objects to see and keep in mind when looking at other objects,” Mr. Hummel said.
    While it may be tempting to show off this new knowledge and refinement, the best consumers approach new objects with an open mind and a degree of humility, he said. “Take nothing for granted and nothing should be assumed.” Over the course of his two 90-minute presentations on Saturday, he included several examples of objects so well counterfeited that they fooled many experts, even himself.
    In one case, it was a very rare block-and-shell chest of drawers from Connecticut in the Winterthur collection. “The staff would genuflect as they walked by it.” But its rarity and unique form should have been a warning, he said, even though it had an impeccable history. It was only when Winterthur’s examination room was completed in a new research building that the chest received any close scrutiny. There it was revealed that it had been remade from parts that formed a pastiche. “We keep it on display as a test for our fellows and guides.”
     One other rule Mr. Hummel said to keep in mind is to observe the whole object before examining the details. Only then can one determine “does it sing to me? Does it have good vibes? And if not, why not?”
    Within particular mediums there are a few obvious things to consider when assessing an object’s authenticity. In ceramics and silver, there are some clear clues that something might not be what it is purported to be. It helps to know that sans serif type was not in use prior to the mid-19th century. Any marks or labels that use it would indicate that the object could not have been made prior to that time.
    In glassware as well as in furniture, uniform signs of wear indicate that someone might have tried to fake a piece. Objects should be worn in the places where they would have been used or handled. Older antique brass objects are actually lighter than later pieces because brass was much more valuable prior to the mid-19th century. Antique andirons have rectangular rods as opposed to the later rounded rods made by machine.
    Meeting these conditions is not a guarantee that an object is genuine, but a failure to do so is a warning that something is wrong.
    Mr. Hummel advised print buyers to buy only unframed prints to see the plate marks or watermarks that would confirm that a print is what its seller says it is, since it was common for plates to be reused in later periods. United States Customs did not require imported items to be stamped with their country of origin until 1891, he said, so any object with a stamp would not predate that year.
    Mr. Hummel outlined some distinctions between furniture pieces that are not authentic. Some things were always intended to fool the eye. Others were made as honest reproductions by firms such as Wallace Nutting but may have been sold dishonestly by dealers as the real thing. Still others are legitimate objects that have had so much repaired or replaced that they can no longer be considered as the original intended form but are sold as the original would have been.
    Colonial revivalism in the 19th century and later led to many reproductions that were clearly marked and sold as such and others that were made and sold fraudulently as real antique objects. Some of these pieces now are more than 100 years old, and in fact the United States Customs rule is that anything more than 100 years old is considered to be an antique. So if it is sold as such, even if it is not from the period stated, an argument could be made that the seller has not technically defrauded the buyer.
    In all periods, mediums, and forms, one should remember, as Mr. Hummel paraphrased Myrna Kaye, who wrote a definitive volume on identifying fake and genuine furniture, “before yielding to the impulse that something is a steal, remember someone else might be doing the stealing.”