The Case of the Missing Locks

A little while ago, I was browsing an auction catalog when I came across an absolutely gorgeous tiger maple chest-on-chest. If you aren’t familiar with this form, it’s a very tall chest of drawers consisting of an upper case and lower case. In the 18th century, the English held fast to this stately form while the Americans were busy going nuts for the elegant and elevated alternative, the highboy (or high chest). Although it wasn’t as popular here as in England, American cabinetmakers did also make the chest-on-chest form (here’s a really nice one). And according to the auction catalog, I was looking at a prime example.

Newport Chest on Chest

Here’s a breathtaking Newport chest on chest at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston–this one has a bonnet top but they can also have flat tops, as did the one in the auction catalog.

It’s not often that a perfectly proportioned, beautifully grained, period chest of drawers in perfect condition appears at auction in California. So, needless to say I was excited to check it out. Undeterred by minor problems—like: I don’t have anywhere in my house to put a large chest of drawers, or, How will I even get this thing home?—I happily drove up to the auction house anyway.

It was right there in the front of the auction room.  The lady helping me register didn’t seem to respond to my sense of urgency, but finally I was checked in, and I made a restrained-mad-dash to the chest. It was absolutely beautiful. Tiger maple, if you aren’t familiar, is so named because the wood grain pattern has alternating stripes of light and dark. Sometimes the contrast can be subtle, and other times extremely bold. A talented cabinetmaker will position the boards artfully so that the stripes create a pleasingly decorative effect and a harmony with the overall design. This chest was a fairly boldly-grained example, and very well executed. Before beginning a close examination, I was already enamored with the proportions, design, and appearance of quality.

tiger maple grain on a chest of drawers

An example of the characteristic striping of tiger maple

Next, I started my basic rundown of the details: pulling out the drawers to look at the construction, examining closely the front, sides, back, top, and feet of the chest, checking the brasses for evidence of replacement, etc. I found a lot of good signs, checking them off my mental list, one by one:

– Are the drawer and case construction methods appropriate for the fourth quarter of the 18th century, including use of handmade dovetails? Yup.

– Do the drawer dovetails of the upper case match those of the lower case? Yup.

– Is there evidence of hand tools on unfinished surfaces, especially the boards forming the back of the case? Yup.

– Do the unfinished back boards exhibit oxidation consistent with a 240 year old piece? Yup.

– Are there any unexplained holes or evidence of modern tools? Nope.

– And so on, and so on…

But I quickly noticed something unsettling: there were no locks. There were brass escutcheons with keyhole cutouts in them, but they were just decorative. There were no actual keyholes, and no actual locks. And no evidence that there had ever been locks in any of the drawers. (To put a lock mechanism in the drawer, you have to cut out quite a large chunk of wood to fit it in, so it would be quite obvious if the locks were simply gone.) They weren’t just gone. They were never there. Now, you may be saying to yourself—so what? Why is a lack of locks suspicious?

locking drawer

Here’s what a drawer with a lock mechanism looks like. The escutcheon on this drawer is both decorative AND functional–see how there really is a keyhole behind the brass?

In the 18th century, locking furniture was a common form of security—for those who could afford to own things of value in the first place, that is. On a large chest of drawers like this, we would expect to find that at least some of the drawers lock. Now, locks themselves were expensive too, so it’s not uncommon to find that some of the drawers on a case piece lock and some of them don’t. Another device that you’ll find is a mechanism whereby one or more drawers is locked with a small piece of wood that sticks out of the drawer bottom, preventing the drawer from sliding out. Only by opening the drawer below it and reaching up to depress this “spring lock” tab, can you slide the drawer out. This allows you to lock two or more drawers while only purchasing one metal lock and key (clever!).

If locks were so expensive, you say, maybe the original owner of this chest couldn’t afford them or didn’t want to bother with the expense. It’s possible. But in every other way, this large piece of case furniture with choice wood specimens and high quality construction suggested a hefty original price tag from the cabinetmaker. If you could afford this chest, I would imagine you could afford a few locks for it.

Once my suspicions were arisen, another damning detail became apparent. I was so enamored with the chest and impressed by its condition that I failed to consider at first—it might actually be too well-preserved…

First, the feet were absolutely pristine, as was the rest of the piece. This was somewhat suspicious, as the feet on such a heavy piece of case furniture are bound to take a bit of a beating over 200+ years. The feet get accidentally kicked (or in modern times, bumped with a vacuum cleaner if you aren’t careful!) When the piece is moved, the feet get dragged or bumped—and, especially if careless, even broken. But these feet looked like they were made yesterday. The beautifully dovetailed corners were sharp as a razor—as was every other corner on the piece.

And it wasn’t just the corners that lacked wear—the finished surfaces on the whole piece were absolutely perfect. Not even a gentle warping of the wood, not a crack in the wide boards used for the case sides. And the surfaces as smooth as glass. One of the neat features of old tiger maple is that you can actually feel the stripes if you run your fingers over the surface. The dark and light stripes in the wood shrink at different rates, so 200 years later the surface isn’t perfectly smooth anymore. Except, here it was. Now, it’s possible that someone sanded the heck out of it during a recent refinishing job. The experts (who don’t even like to use the term refinishing!) know how to conservatively refresh a tired old finish, without destroying 200 years of patina with sandpaper. But perhaps this chest had an overzealous restorer. It’s possible. Doesn’t explain the sharp corners and lack of cracks or warping though. Was it tucked away in some basement with constant temperature and humidity for 200 years? And if so—why did it need drastic refinishing?!

Ultimately, you have to use multiple lines of evidence to decide whether a piece is “right” or not. And for this chest, gorgeous as it was, I just wasn’t feeling it.

I struck up a conversation with a man who was examining the chest and muttering suspicions to his friend. “There aren’t any locks,” I offered. “Don’t you find that odd?” It turned out he was a long-time dealer from the midwest, out here on a trip to buy antiques and visit his friend. And he personally collects antique tiger maple furniture. We had a great conversation about the piece, and ultimately decided we agreed it was a fake (to be fair, I was probably 80% sure until the experienced dealer told me he was 100% sure… and then I was 100% sure). Needless to say, he was as bummed out as I was.

Disappointed with the auction, I met up with a friend for lunch nearby.  On our way back to the car, we walked past a little antique and vintage shop and decided to have a look. I struck up a conversation with the owner, who wanted to know what sort of things I collected. When I told him that I was into early American furniture (with the requisite “yea, yea, I know I’m on the wrong coast for that!”), he got excited. Turns out he’s a transplant from New England himself. “You didn’t happen to go to the auction up the street today, did you?” he asked as he pulled out a flyer with photos of the day’s offerings. “I just came from there, actually,” I said. He lit up and pointed to the flyer: “Did you see this tiger maple chest of drawers?” “I did, yea…but in my opinion, it’s a fake.” I was curious to hear his thoughts, but he hadn’t been able to get away from the shop to go see it in person.

“A fake?! Wow, tell me about it!” We had a grand time going over the piece in our minds, as I told him about what I thought was right and wrong. In the end, he agreed with my suspicions. And I made another new friend. Despite coming home empty-handed, it was really a fun day of collaborative sleuthing. Sounds like an unwritten Nancy Drew furniture adventure: The Case of the Missing Locks.

Filling the Void

I may be the only one who sees it, but I swear there’s a void in the California antiques market. As I’ve lamented before, the antiquing culture just isn’t the same here as it is on the east coast. Which is fine, really–I fully enjoy and appreciate what regionality we have left in our corporate-focused modern experience, where a Chick-fil-A sandwich tastes the same in California as it does in Illinois.

But just like the expat from London who seeks out his local British import store for a taste of home, I’ve been searching for just one source of what I vaguely describe as “east coast” antiques. I appreciate that there’s an abundance of beautiful mid-century modern, arts & crafts, Chinese, and even European decorative arts to be found here in California (although there’s frankly also a lot of junk). But I can’t possibly be the only one looking for traditional American decor, right? Are all the Boston transplants suddenly tossing mahogany aside and going native with a mission-style living room?

I know what you’re going to say: why don’t you just move to Maine and go antiquing every weekend? And let me tell you, that sounds awesome. It’s a great retirement plan. But for practical reasons, I’m in California for the time being. So I came up with another solution. If no one is selling the kind of antiques I’d like to buy, why don’t I just do it myself? Someone has to import Flake chocolate to stock the British food store (If you haven’t tried a Flake, stop reading and go find some now!). Why not “import” those “east coast” antiques from the east coast?

Indeed. Why not.

Thus, I present to you an experiment in market economics: Lauren Csaki Antiques, Fine Goods for the Traditional American Home, Torrance, California. If I really am the only one out there looking for this stuff, the experiment may flop. But I suspect I’m not. There’s only one way to find out.

You may be wondering what I’ve been up to the past couple of months, since I haven’t posted too much on the blog. Turns out, starting a business takes a lot of work! Hopefully, it will all come together tomorrow morning at the grand opening of Lauren Csaki Antiques! Come see my booth at the Santa Monica Airport Antiques Market. It’s sure to be a beautiful day. I’ll be there from 6:00 am to 3:00 pm–trying my hand at filling the void.

Business Card June 2014_2d

DIY Conservation Framing: Cost Analysis

Here is an approximated cost analysis for DIY conservation framing, as outlined in my tutorial. Since my Irish map project was 15″x15″, I drew up a sample analysis table based on this size. As you can see, the initial investment in tools and materials makes the first project quite expensive at $283. I’m pretty sure the professional framing job would be less expensive than this. However, if you then go on to do a second, third, fouth project, the cost for each of these subsequent projects plummets down to basically just the cost of the frame, glass, and mat board.

DIY Conservation Framing Cost Analysis

A few notes:

1. This table highlights how the choice of glass (anti-UV or regular) is a major driver of the total project cost.

2. I put in $30 for the frame cost, but this can be highly variable. You may be re-framing something that was done a while ago without archival materials–in this case you’ll be discarding all of the matting and backing boards, but you can easily re-use the frame and glass if you wish. You may get lucky and find something suitable at a thrift shop or auction like I mentioned. A common strategy I’ve used with success is ordering custom wood frames on eBay. Or–the most expensive option–you may have to order a custom frame from a framer.

3. You may notice that the mounting board cost is always $0, and this is because you can use one 32″x40″ matboard ($18 for high-end cotton rag) for both the window mat and the mounting board. In fact, for a 15″x15″ project, you can get two window mats and two mounting boards out of this one 32″x40″ sheet, which is why this cost doesn’t show up again until Project #3 on the table.

4. The framers’ tape, hinging tissue, and rubber bumpers should last you for dozens of projects. The roll of frame-sealing tape and the hanging hardware will last about a half dozen projects.

5. I left off some of the more basic tools from the table. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t already own a pencil and a decent pair of scissors, DIY conservation framing might not be for you…

Happy Framing!

DIY Conservation Framing: A Tutorial

In this post I will share with you the fruits of my research and practice on DIY conservation framing, which has been a great success with professional quality results. To help you achieve the same, I have written an illustrated tutorial, with a separate page discussing sources for tools and materials and how to select them.

Of course, as much as some enjoy DIY for its own sake, another point of the exercise was to see if I could save money over a professional conservation framing job. I’ll discuss this cost comparison in detail in the next post, but the sneak peak answer is: if you plan to frame several items, the DIY route can produce significant cost savings, even after the initial investment in tools and materials. If you’re just doing one or two projects though, take it to the framer and spend your weekend hunting for more antiques instead. Or lounging.

Below is an at-a-glance look at the conservation framing project. We’ll be sandwiching our antique document/artwork safely between several layers called the “framing package.” Under the frame and glass, a window mat serves both as a decorative border for the artwork and also to protect it from touching the glass. The mounting board (not the window mat) is the surface to which the artwork is actually attached with tissue hinges. Finally, the protective backing board fills out the framing package and provides the point of contact for the glazing/framing points and frame sealing tape securing everything in the frame.

Conservation Framing Stack Illustration

In this tutorial, I’ll describe the most rigorous version of the project. On the Tools and Materials page, I offer some tips to cut costs at various steps. Only you can decide if and where you want to take it down a notch to save money. Okay, let’s dive in.

Step 1: Identify the document/artwork for framing. I’m going to be using a 1779 map of Ireland to demonstrate. It’s beautifully engraved and vibrantly hand-colored on laid paper.

1779 Ireland map

Step 2: Choose the dimensions of your frame and window mat. My map is a little odd, in that it’s a 7” square map printed on a rectangular piece of paper about 14” wide. Obviously, I don’t want to damage the map by cutting it down, so I’ll use the full width of the paper to dictate the size of my frame. I’m going with a 15” square frame and a 7.5” square opening in the window mat.

Step 3: Gather all tools and materials needed. Check the Tools and Materials page for advice on what to choose and where to get it.

Step 4: Measure and cut the boards. Use a mat cutter or utility knife to straight-cut a backing board, mounting board, and window mat to the frame size. In my case, this is a 15” square.

Step 5: Cut the opening in the window mat. I’m not going to discuss in detail how to do this, because if you decide to invest in a mat cutter (see Tools and Materials), it will come with its own written and/or video directions on how to make the bevel cuts for a mat window. I also recommend the book Mat, Mount, and Frame it Yourself for more complex applications, such as the double mat that I’ve cut here. Or, if you don’t want to invest in a mat cutter, you can get a mat cut for you at a frame shop or on eBay.

Cutting the window mat

Making the bevel-cut opening on the window mat with a mat cutter

Window mat, mouting board, and backing board

The window mat, mounting board, and backing board cut to 15″ square. The decorative lines on the window mat are an optional, extra flourish called French Matting. I’ll have to save that discussion for another time.

Step 6: Hinge the window mat board to the mounting board. Position the window mat on top of the mounting board as they will be in the final framing package. You can leave the artwork aside for now. Flip up the window mat as if you were flipping a wall calendar to the next month. Use framers’ tape across the seam where the window mat and mounting board meet. This tape hinge will stabilize the position of the window mat over the artwork, preventing it from shifting in the frame.

hinging the window mat to the mounting board

Step 7: Position the artwork. Flip the window mat back down, and position the artwork under the window mat. Place something clean and heavy (ish) on the artwork to hold it in place while you flip the window mat back up.

weight on the map

A toast rack with clean, smooth feet was a perfect weight to keep the map in place

Step 8: Hinge the artwork to the mounting board. With the weight in place making sure it doesn’t move from that spot, you will now tape the artwork down to the mounting board with hinging tissue. The type of hinge you’ll be making is called a T-hinge. First, stick the end of a piece of hinging tissue to the back of the artwork. The hinge should contact the document with as little surface area as possible—maybe up to ¼ inch. Repeat with a second hinge on the other side (heavy items may need three). For the second half of the T-hinge, take another strip of tissue and use it to paste down the first piece to the mounting board (see pictures).  Hint: when tearing pieces of hinging tissue, tear with your hands rather than cutting with scissors—it will create a nice feathered edge that lays very smooth on the artwork and mounting board.

A few notes: We use delicate hinging tissue rather than strong tape, so that if the artwork was accidentally tugged, the tissue would tear before the artwork did. Also, the point of the hinges is to let the artwork hang freely, so that if it expands or contracts with humidity changes, it won’t buckle or tear. Therefore, only put hinges on the top of the artwork. Never tape an entire edge of the artwork to the mounting board, or put hinges on the sides or bottom. For the same reason, make the first hinge “tight” (hinging tape pasted down near the artwork) and any others “loose” (hinging tape pasted higher above the artwork—see picture). This aids the free movement of the artwork. For more on hinges, check out this article.

open the window mat

Flip up the window mat while the weight keeps the artwork in place

affixing the first hinging tissue 2

The first half of the T-hinge: affix a piece of hinging tissue to the back of the artwork

affixing the second hinging tissue

The second half of the T-hinge: Use a second piece of hinging tissue to paste the first piece down to the mounting board. The “tight” hinge is on the right, and the “loose” hinge on the left (see notes).

Step 9: Line the frame with frame-sealing tape. The point of this extra-conservative step is to protect the artwork from any acid in the wood that might seep through the framing package materials (See Tools and Materials for more discussion on acid). I found that it was helpful to pre-fold the frame sealing tape to fit before peeling off the backing. Use a bone folder to press the tape down into the frame rabbet. Note: Some framers put tape around the edges of the framing package instead, which accomplishes the same goal of protecting the framing package from touching the wood, in addition to protecting the framing package from dust particles getting in. However, professional framers debate the pros and cons of this practice. As long as the jury is still out on what’s best, I figured I would opt not to do it for now.

fold the frame sealing tape

Crease the frame sealing tape to fit the rabbet before removing the white paper backing

push the frame sealing tape into the rabbet

Remove the paper backing and use a bone folder to press the frame sealing tape into the frame rabbet

Step 10: Secure the frame package in the frame. Now it’s time to put the framing package in order, cleaning and/or dusting each piece before it goes into the frame. Start with the glass. Use a non-ammonia glass cleaner and a lint free cloth to give a final cleaning to both sides of the glass (traces of ammonia left behind can damage your artwork). A pressurized air canister (like you use to clean your computer keyboard) is a helpful tool for blowing away any residual dust as you lower the glass carefully into the frame. Next, make sure the window mat, artwork, and mounting board assembly is dust free (again, the air canister is awesome) and place it face down into the frame. Finally, do the same with the backing board. If your frame came with little metal points installed, use them to secure the framing package in the frame. For extra security, I added a few more glazing points with a point pusher.

secure the framing package

Step 11: Seal the gaps with frame-sealing tape. To protect against dust entering the framed artwork, seal all four sides with the same frame-sealing tape. Make sure the tape is well adhered by pressing firmly with a bone folder all the way around. An alternate way to seal the frame from dust is to glue a paper dust cover over the back of the frame. Different framers prefer different methods, but many argue that the tape creates a better and more lasting seal. Plus it’s simpler, and you avoid adding one more thing to the materials shopping list!

frame sealing tape to keep dust out

Step 12: Add the hanging hardware. Attach D-rings on either side, about a third of the way down from the top of the frame.  Cut a piece of picture hanging wire, and twist onto the D-rings. Finally, add bumpers to the bottom corners of the frame. The bumpers serve to protect the wall from the frame and vice versa, in addition to promoting air circulation behind the frame and helping the frame stay in place on the wall.

adding the hanging hardware

Add the hanging hardware about one third of the way down from the top of the frame, and bumpers to the bottom corners

And that’s all! Step back and admire your handiwork!

the finished map



Don’t forget to check out the Tools and Materials page for more information.

Further Reading:

Here are some of the articles I found helpful in learning DIY conservation framing. They contain much more in-depth discussion than I could have possibly included here in one tutorial.

Matting and Framing for Art and Artifacts on Paper

Preservation Matting for Works of Art on Paper

Framing Myths Explained: Tapes and Hinges

Art Hinging Tips

The Benefits of Archival Matting and Framing

Book: Mat, Mount, and Frame it Yourself



Conservation Framing for Antique Documents: 5 Questions to Consider

A few years ago I bought my husband an 18th century map of Hungary as a birthday present. He may not gush over mahogany furniture like I do, but he does share my love of history and maps. Born in Budapest, he takes a particular interest in eastern Europe.

Recently, he expressed a desire to have the map framed professionally, so he could enjoy it more by hanging it on the wall. We got in contact with a serious antique map collector who pointed us to the framing specialist he entrusts with his own collection.

We knew that a professional conservation framing job would not be an inexpensive undertaking. But despite feeling prepared, we were utterly struck with sticker shock when the cost estimate came out to something like three times what I paid for the map itself!

My husband was initially skeptical, and immediately started considering ways to cut costs. The idea of paying more for the framing than the object seemed to him counterintuitive. But might it still be the right course of action? Ultimately I think there is no one answer to this question. Rather, it’s a personal decision with many angles. Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves, and that you may find helpful to reference in a similar situation:

  1. Does the item have monetary value?   This is the obvious one. If you’ve invested a significant amount of money in an antique document, then it will certainly make sense to spend a bit more to protect it. If, on the other hand, it’s not worth much, why is that the case? Perhaps because of limited interest among collectors, or because similar items can be found in relative abundance in the current market? Consider that interests change over time, and that if everyone in your shoes decided conservation wasn’t worth the investment, would there still be a relative abundance in fifty years? A hundred? Obviously you should net depend on increased value in your object; these thought experiments are speculative at best. But there are other important reasons to preserve something than just its current sticker price…
  2. Does the item have sentimental value?   A family heirloom (or a gift from your wife!) may be worth a great deal more to you than its cash value suggests. An expensive framing job may seem perfectly logical if you decide that the item in question is, as we say, “priceless.”
  3. Will you enjoy it for years to come?   It may seem expensive to properly frame it today, but if you plan on enjoying the finished framed artifact for many years, it might be worth the extra initial investment. If you cut corners now, you may wind up paying more in the end when you decide to “do it right” sometime down the line. Or worse, poor quality framing materials may damage the item in the long term, and if it continues to be a treasured object, you’ll regret not investing in its preservation.
  4. Is it worth preserving for the future?   This is a question that the antiques enthusiast asks herself. Caring for an object for reasons beyond its cash equivalent requires an appreciation of history, craftsmanship, connoisseurship, and preservation. Going back to an earlier point, consider what would happen if all these decisions were made by monetary considerations alone. Since objects of history cannot be replaced, if no one in possession of such things makes the investment to preserve them, soon they will be lost to the ravages of time. Ask yourself if the object is something you’d like your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to experience. Or if historians in the next century would be interested in examining it.
  5. What can you realistically afford?   The answer to this question usually becomes the limiting factor in any decision. If you can’t afford to invest in conservation framing right now, but you are concerned about preservation, the best option may be to simply place it in an archival quality folder or box and put it away in a safe, dry, and dark place until you can.

Truthfully, if museums were concerned only with preservation, all documents and art would be safely stored away in dark, climate-controlled warehouses, not framed and hung on the gallery walls. But museum curators have to weigh preservation considerations against the museum’s mission to share their objects with the public for education and enjoyment. Likewise, hanging your antique on the wall will almost certainly bring you more enjoyment than putting it away in safe storage. To decide how much protection to provide while enjoying your collection, you’ll have to be your own curator.

map of hungary conservation framed

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with the professional (and pricey) conservation framing for the Hungary map. The framer did a phenomenal job, and we don’t regret the investment. But as we’ve started to collect additional antique maps and prints recently, I began to wonder if conservation framing was something I could learn to do myself—at a much lower cost.

Stay tuned for the next post, where I’ll share the results of my research and practice with conservation framing at home. I’ll show you a step-by-step DIY approach with professional quality results.

“B” is for Bureaucracy. And British Silver.

Sometimes, a little bureaucracy can be a great thing. For collectors of antique British silver, that is…

Remember in elementary school where they taught us to write a story by defining “who, what, when, where, and why?” I guess this is an age-old technique, because every piece of British silver has the answers stamped right into the metal—courtesy of a government official. These stamps are called hallmarks, and they are invaluable tools for the modern collector looking to identify her new find.

Hallmarks on the underside of a ladle

Hallmarks on the underside of a ladle

The British hallmarking system, dating back to 1300, was developed as a way to curb the practice of unscrupulous individuals debasing silver goods (gold as well). The government decided to test and mark each item coming out of a silversmith’s shop, to make sure it met the “sterling” standard of 92.5% pure silver. Over time, additional informative hallmarks were added. By the 18th century, a system of four to five marks was in use:

  1. Who: A maker’s mark is registered at the assay office by each silversmith, and is stamped on all of his wares. This is the only stamp that the maker applies himself. All the others are applied by the assayer.
  2. What: The assayer’s mark shows the piece was tested to meet the sterling standard of 92.5% pure silver. The mark is usually a “lion passant” (a lion facing left) but in some years/cities it was a “lion gardant” (a lion facing left but looking over his shoulder). In Ireland a crowned harp is used instead.
  3. When: The date mark is a letter inside a shield. By changing the typeface of the letters and the shapes of the shields, the alphabet was cycled through many times to make a unique mark for each year. (One small caveat: the changeover to the new year’s mark didn’t  always happen on January 1st until it was standardized as such in 1975—different cities changed over in May, June, or October. It wouldn’t be a bureaucracy without a dose of the illogical, right?)
  4. Where: The city mark indicates which assay office performed the testing. In the 18th/19th centuries, there were ~10 assay offices across England, Scotland, and Ireland.  And just for fun, each assay office had its own separate date mark system! (This was also standardized in 1975)
  5. From 1784 to 1890, a duty mark was stamped, to show that a special tax was paid. The mark depicted the current monarch: George III, George IV, William IV, or Victoria. (I know this doesn’t really fit as “why” so you’ll just have to throw me a bone here…)
You'll need to consult a reference like this one to interpret the hallmarks on your piece of silver

You’ll need to consult a reference like this one to interpret the hallmarks on your piece of silver

To interpret the hallmarks on a piece of silver, you’ll need to consult a reference. Ian Pickford’s Pocket Jackson’s Hallmarks or Judith Banister’s English Silver Hallmarks are handy little volumes, or you can use an online database like this one or this one. As an example, let’s take a look at this charming little Georgian sauce ladle.


The hallmarks can be found on the underside of the handle.


If we zoom in and look at the marks (below), they are from top to bottom: the maker’s mark, the city mark, the assayer’s mark, the date mark, and the duty mark. To decipher them, we’ll start with the city, since the other marks can differ by city. I’m using the Banister book. Here we go:

IMG_2934 - Version 2

City mark: The leopard’s head is the symbol for the London assay office. Flip to the London section of your reference (Banister, p.21 or here). The design of the leopard’s head already gives clues to the date, because the leopard had a crown before 1822. Ours has no crown, indicating this piece is post-1822 (p.26).

Date mark: We have a gothic “A.” Look through the “A” marks in the reference and compare the fonts. Then, check the shape of the shield. There should be only one clear match: here it’s 1836 (p.27). (Note there were two shield varieties used during this alphabet cycle.) A gothic “A” was also used in 1756 (p.25) but it’s in a slightly different shield, the leopard should be crowned, and there should be no duty mark. Also, we note that the leopard head city mark design and shield shape is correct for 1836.

Assayer’s mark: The style for the lion varies a bit between cities and years, so we verify in the reference (p.27) that this is the correct lion passant (including shield shape) for 1836.

Maker’s mark: The Banister book only has a select list of major makers. WT/LB is not in the book, but I did find it in larger online databases here and here. It stands for the partnership of  William Theobalds and Lockington Bunn. According to someone quoting the exhaustive reference by Grimwade, this partnership lasted only briefly from 1835-1836, which fits the date of our piece. (I don’t own a copy of Grimwade so I was unable to look this up myself.)

Duty mark: Since 1836 falls within the years of the duty mark, it should have the appropriate monarch’s head as the fifth and final stamp. The reference shows us what the profile of William IV should look like in 1836, and indeed it is correct.

Et voilà! We now know this little sterling ladle was made right about 1836, in or near London, by William Theobalds and Lockington Bunn. Man, I wish furniture had all this information stamped underneath every chair, table, and chest of drawers…

I lamented in a previous post how most antiques become somewhat anonymous after being separated from their makers and origin stories by so much time. British silver is a wonderful exception. And that’s how bureaucracy can be awesome.

Of course, such a (relatively) simple method of identification presents an opportunity for fakers to play right into the system, and indeed this has been a problem for quite some time. To determine if your piece is genuine, you must think like a detective—all of the evidence should stack up properly. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. The real punches used to stamp the hallmarks were of very high quality, producing a sharp, bold image. Forgers often cast the marks right into the piece when making cast copies of an original, resulting in a much softer, cruder image. One caveat: the maker’s mark, since it was applied by the silversmith and not the assayer, is usually a little cruder than the assay office ones, but still crisply punched and not cast.
  2. The hallmarks should all have the correct image and shield shape for the date that it purports to be. If one or more is off, be suspicious. The active dates for the maker’s mark should match the year of the piece.
  3. If the hallmarks are stamped onto a separate little tab of silver that was then applied to the object, this is a huge red flag. The forger probably cut the hallmarks off a genuine piece, or mass-produced some tabs, and then “glued” them onto fake objects.
  4. Check the quality of the object: does it appear to be handmade by a fine craftsman or are there crude elements that make you suspicious of an unskilled forger or mass production?
  5. For nice antique flatware, you should be a little suspicious if there is no monogram or crest. Monogramming was an extremely popular practice. Modern collectors tend to prefer pieces without someone else’s initials on them however, creating an incentive for sellers to remove monograms (you lose a lot of silver in doing so, and it’s usually obvious) or to produce fresh, blank fakes.
  6. There are myriad other little clues that I suppose have to be drawn from accumulated experience and knowledge. For instance, a passage in the Banister book (p.15) mentioned that the placement of hallmarks on the underside of spoons were near the bowl until 1780, and then near the end of the stem, which fits what I see on my ladle.

My ladle appears to be genuine by these criteria. Hopefully I’m not blinded by excitement over the original reason I was drawn to it: the monogram has my and my husband’s initials!


I hope this article was useful and clear. I’ve only just scratched the surface here of all there is to say on British hallmarks and silver. For further reading, check out the following:

Banister, Judith. English Silver Hallmarks

Hayden, Arthur. Chats on Old Silver (eBook available free)

Pickford, Ian. Pocket Edition Jackson’s Hallmarks

Pickford, Ian. Starting to Collect Antique Silver

Silver Magpies (a blog and business by silver expert Nan who is awesome!)

Silver-Collector Forum

London, Birmingham, and Sheffield Assay Offices

If you have any questions, add a comment below or send me an email! Does anyone have additional tips for spotting fake hallmarks or fake pieces?

The little ladle is the perfect size for a gravy boat. This one is not an antique but rather a piece of our wedding china!

The ladle is the perfect size for a gravy boat. This one is not an antique but a piece of our wedding china!

“Lauren, Come Quick–There’s a Highboy on the TV!”…

…shouted my husband from the living room when he got home from work last night. I laughed but kept on cooking in the kitchen. On the tip of my uncle who lives on the East Coast, I was recording Jeopardy to watch over dinner.  Not only was the controversial champion Arthur Chu back on the program, my uncle said, but one of the categories featured a collection of American furniture! I am so there.

I finished cooking and we sat down to watch the recorded show. The category my uncle alluded to showed up in the game’s first round: “American Decorative Arts.” It was one of those categories with video clues—in this case, shot on location at Winterthur, a mansion museum in Delaware dedicated almost exclusively to American furniture/decorative arts. Yay!

I LOVE Jeopardy, but one thing I dislike is when the clue twists around a bit so that the response ends up having nothing to do with the category. Something like: “Once home to a thriving furniture industry famous for perfecting the bombé chest form, Boston is now home to this NBA basketball team.” OH COME ON.

I made up that example, but you’ll see shortly that some of the real clues from last night’s game made use of this annoying tactic. I’ve got to imagine they do this on purpose, to add a little more randomness to the game and prevent an expert in the category from making a run on it. I think it’s stupid.

For an American decorative arts enthusiast, all of last night’s clues were pretty easy. So easy, in fact, that I think you can get the answers without the video component, which obviously provided additional visual hints. Here they are, in order of dollar value–test yourself! (Answers at the end of the post)

$200: Here in the Delaware countryside, a member of this prominent industrial family spent decades collecting often overlooked early American art, before turning his 175-room mansion (Winterthur) into a museum.

$400: In 1929, Winterthur’s owner showed he meant business when he paid a then-record $44,000 for a classic high chest of Philadelphia Rococco, outbidding this controversial publisher.

$600: What was once the family’s dining room has an early American theme with square-backed chairs from around 1800 in the Federal style, and tankards by this Boston patriot and silversmith.

$800: Contrasting with more elaborate rooms is one named for this religious group, that believed crafting is an act of prayer, and that items should be simply functional.

$1000: Distressed by the discount-store furnishings, this woman reached out to the man who built up Winterthur to redecorate, especially the Green Room. She later wrote to him: “Everything lovely in the White House now is all your contribution.”

Okay, I know I’ve just been talking about Jackie Kennedy’s renovation of the White House (here and here), so it’s fresh in my mind. But please tell me how identifying a picture of Jackie Kennedy qualifies as the HARDEST question in the “American Decorative Arts” category! (Video clue, remember? They showed a PICTURE of Jackie Kennedy!) Give me a break.

And in the video clue that showed the Philadelphia highboy (prompting my husband’s initial incredulous exclamation), all you had to do in the end was identify a photo of William Randolph Hearst. *Face-palm* I guess I did learn something, though, because I had no idea that Hearst collected American furniture (when DuPont wasn’t outbidding him, I guess!) I suppose I’m not surprised—he collected everything. I’m still trying to decide whether this new knowledge raises my opinion of Hearst, though. His controversial “yellow journalism” aside, the man had poor taste.

When I visited Hearst Castle years ago, I had high hopes of seeing a great collection of fine and decorative arts in a beautiful mansion setting. What I saw instead was a garish, overstuffed mess of eclecticism in a giant house. He didn’t “collect” so much as “amass” a mind-boggling number of objects. What you see today is the edited version! He sold off much of his collection to pay debts towards the end of his life. This is not to say that many of the individual pieces themselves are not masterpieces—but in my opinion, Hearst didn’t have the eye for design to put a cohesive collection together in a tasteful setting. I also don’t mean to imply that “eclectic” is a negative in and of itself. Eclectic can be done well, or it can be done poorly. It’s too bad I missed this exhibition by LACMA several years ago, which apparently tried to counter this prevailing opinion about Hearst (yea, I’m not the only one) and defend him as a connoisseur. But I remain skeptical—anyone who buys objects as voraciously as Hearst did is bound to stumble upon some gems. For the gem-to-dud ratio though, my money is on DuPont. Or Garvan. Or Hogg. Or Sage/Bolles.

A bedroom in Hearst Castle. Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen via Flickr/Creative Commons license

A bedroom in Hearst Castle. Photo courtesy of Larry Jacobsen via Flickr/Creative Commons license

Back to the original topic though, it was exciting to see Winterthur featured on Jeopardy. I just felt the caliber of the clues left something to be desired. At least, for an enthusiast of the subject. Perhaps for the average Joe Public, the selection was an adequate if somewhat dumbed-down introduction to “American Decorative Arts.”

Did you see the show? What do you think?

Correct Responses:
200: Who is DuPont
400: Who is Hearst
600: Who is Revere
800: What are Shakers
1000: Who is Jackie Kennedy

A Brand New “Antique”

I saw a friend recently who was eager to hear about my trip to the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum. “So…” he said curiously, “Tell me what you bought at the antique show!”

“Ah, it wasn’t an antique show, it was a conference,” I clarified.  “There wasn’t actually anything for sale—we went to lectures and toured exhibits.” I think he was disappointed. And I suppose it was funny in a way, for me to be gone for two weeks on an antique-themed trip and come home without any antiques to show for it.

When I was in DC, I prioritized seeing exhibits over shopping. With limited time, I figured the free national museums were a better bet than trekking out to the high-end design district in Georgetown, where all I was likely to come home with was sticker shock. And in Williamsburg, there are (oddly enough) no antique shops nearby, and certainly none in the historic area. Lacking both the car and the time needed to explore neighboring towns, I was content to stay put.

But despite the apparent lack of antiques for sale at Colonial Williamsburg, one finds instead a time-traveling portal to the places where our beloved objects were once purchased by their original owners: the cabinetmaker, the silversmith, the milliner, the foundry, etc. These Colonial Williamsburg historic trades are working shops, run by masters of the crafts and populated by journeymen and apprentices much as they would have been in the 18th century. As they create new works of functional and decorative art, the pieces that are not needed by the Foundation are put up for sale in the Prentis Store (or in the case of the silversmith, the Golden Ball shop)…


The Prentis Store, selling items handmade by the Historic Trades

…which is where I picked out these little pewter beauties:


The advantage of buying these brand new pewter candlesticks as opposed to period ones is that I was able to meet the man who made them! After leaving the Prentis Store, I headed down to the Geddy Foundry to seek out “MN,” as the sticks were signed. “That would be me!” said the journeyman working near the back of the shop. “MN” is for Mike Noftsger. Pleased to meet you, Mike. I just bought your candlesticks!


Apprentice Suzanne Dye and journeyman Mike Noftsger work in the Geddy Foundry

They were working on something else by now, but the foundry master very kindly got out the candlestick molds to show me. He explained the whole process from melting the pewter to burnishing the finished product—everything done by hand with carefully researched period techniques and materials.


Separate molds are used for the shaft of the candlestick…


…and for the base. Because pewter has such a low melting point, metal molds can be used. To make bronze or brass objects, sand molds must be made.


The two pieces are them trimmed of excess pewter, and fitted together to make the candlestick. At the end, the piece is burnished to bring out a beautiful shine.

In going to the foundry to meet the craftsmen and understand the process by which they work, my experience of buying these candlesticks was in a way more true to the 18th century than if I bought the “real thing” in an antique shop, separated from its maker and its origin story by over two hundred years.

I was reminded of this experience during a lecture on contemporary art that I recently attended with an artist friend. The debate rages on over the merits of current artists working in historical styles or techniques (many modernists contend that if it’s not avant-garde, it’s not really art). But there is something uniquely frustrating about the fact that we can never talk to the people who created the great works of art of the past. A collector of Albert Bierstadt can never ask him what he was thinking or why he made the choices he did. But the collector could talk to Erik Koeppel, a living artist working in a similar style. The same could be said of the great cabinetmakers (or foundrymen!) of early America versus those making high-quality reproductions in the same manner today.

A consideration of the merits of my brand new candlesticks thus brings up larger issues that deserve a discussion all their own: What is an antique? What are the important qualities of an antique/what makes one more desirable than another? Certainly the word “antique” implies a certain age to the item, but I assure you that even those in the field argue over the right time cutoff for what “counts” and what doesn’t. And, even if we can agree that age is a requirement to make something an antique, is it sufficient? Or do we also want to require a certain threshold of quality craftsmanship before bestowing the hallowed word? These questions compel a more involved discussion that will have to wait for a future post.

For now, I’ll contend that my candlesticks are not, in a conservative definition of the term, really antiques. But in a way, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting souvenir of my first trip to the Forum.


The White House, Part II (State Floor)

If you missed Part I of my White House tour, check it out here. We are now heading upstairs to the State Rooms.

An imposing central hallway leads to the East Room, the largest in the White House. Essentially a large ballroom that can be configured to host anything from banquets to concerts to ceremonies, it doesn’t have much in the way of permanent furniture. Abigail Adams, however, famously used it to hang laundry, since it remained unfinished while she and John lived there.


The Cross Hall connects the East Room with the State Dining Room at opposite ends of the White House.

Perhaps the most remarkable treasure in this room is the 8-foot-tall portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. The portrait is a contemporary copy by Stuart after his original version (called the Lansdowne portrait; now in the National Portrait Gallery). Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait as she and the last of the remaining staff finally fled the White House as the British stormed into the city during the War of 1812. Short on space and manpower, Mrs. Madison could only save so many items from destruction. She chose the portrait, the silver, Madison’s documents, some books, a clock, and…curtains. Why she placed such a high value on red velvet drapes we may never know. While reading up about this, I discovered an interesting story about a dress that belonged to Mrs. Madison. Some historians speculate that the dress, which is made of a heavyweight red velvet more appropriate for draperies than for a gown, was actually cut from her rescued curtains.


GIlbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington. Interestingly, a misspelling of “United Sates” on one of the book spines in the painting, denotes this version as Stuart’s copy of his own original.

Jackie Kennedy deserves much credit for creating the White House Historical Association and halting practices destructive to White House history. So it blew my mind to find out that the red marble mantels and baseboards were actually painted white under her watch. Who paints over beautiful marble?! More recently it was decided to reverse this, but they never could get all of the white paint off, and streaks remain to this day.


The East Room after the Kennedy Restoration. Note the red marble mantels and baseboards have been painted (?!) white. This has since been reversed. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Green Room were two of my favorite works of art at the White House. The first was a silver coffee urn owned by John and Abigail Adams. The second was a painting by Ferdinand Richardt, c.1860. Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, a collector spotted a dirty painting at a secondhand market in India. Though obscured by dirt and grime, the architecture in the street scene painting appeared to be British or American. He bought it for about seven dollars. Once restored, the painting was indeed revealed to be of an American building—in fact, it was none other than Independence Hall. Talk about an antiquer’s dream come true!!


Richardt’s painting of Independence Hall hangs above the coffee table displaying John and Abigail Adams’ coffee urn. Love the silk moiré on the walls.

In the oval-shaped Blue Room was a suite of c.1815 blue and gold upholstered furniture by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé, ordered by President Monroe during his refurnishing of the White House after the War of 1812. This set of furniture, which was originally much larger, was lost with so many other items in the periodic auctions that were held when new Presidents felt like redecorating. During Jackie Kennedy’s renovation, some of this lost furniture resurfaced and was purchased by or donated back to the White House. Among these reacquired pieces was one of the Bellangé chairs. Quality reproductions of the chair were then commissioned to fill out the set of furniture, and additional originals (there are now 8) were acquired over time. Needless to say, if you have anything from this set lying around, you might want to give the White House a call…


The Blue Room. Swags of “fabric” in wallpaper give a nod to the real draperies once installed by Jackie Kennedy.


This sofa is part of the furniture suite by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé ordered by President Monroe.

 In the Red Room hung a portrait of Angelica Singleton, one of a handful of First Ladies who were not the wife of the President. In the case of President Martin Van Buren, his wife Hannah had died many years before he took office, so his daughter-in-law Angelica served as the First Lady and mistress of the White House. I thought it was a bit comical that the artist—Henry Inman—decided to include a bust of President Van Buren in the portrait of Angelica, as if to prompt viewers who may be thinking, “Umm, who is she again?”


The Red Room


Portrait of Angelica Singleton Van Buren, daughter-in-law of President Van Buren whose bust appears in the portrait. Via Wikimedia Commons

From the Red Room you can look back down through the Blue Room, Green Room, and all the way back to Stuart’s portrait of George Washington in the East Room–although that wasn’t always the case. This alignment of the doorways providing a view through a series of rooms is an architectural feature known as “enfilade” (love it!)


In this architectural feature called “enfilade” you can see through all the state rooms back to the portrait of George Washington in the East Room

Finally, we entered the State Dining Room with its famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Interestingly, the White House chose a different portrait of Lincoln for its official commission, despite having been sent this work for consideration by a hopeful George Healy. Lincoln’s son instead bought Healy’s portrait, declaring that it was an unparalleled likeness. His widow later donated it to the White House.

Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Lincoln's son declared this the best painting of his father.

Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Lincoln’s son Robert declared this the best painting of his father.

Another hallmark of the dining room is the set of French gilt bronze décor purchased by President Monroe. Some of the candelabras were displayed on the sideboard and mantel, but I was disappointed that the 14-foot-long plateau centerpiece, often laid out on the dining table, was not on view during our visit. The mantel is a reproduction of the one created during the major 1902 renovation by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The original 1902 mantel was flanked with lions, which President Teddy Roosevelt decided wasn’t American enough. He had the lions changed out for two American Buffalo (incidentally, he also decided to outfit the dining room with wild game trophy heads!). Franklin Roosevelt further embellished the mantel by engraving a quote from a letter John Adams wrote to Abigail upon arriving at the White House: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” This 1902 mantel was removed during Truman’s renovations (begun in 1948), and sent to his Presidential Library where it remains today. When the Kennedys were in the midst of their renovations, they asked for the mantel to be returned to the White House, but this request was denied, and a copy was installed in its place.


Abraham Lincoln presides over the State Dining Room

These stories are seriously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to White House history. For further reading, check out:

The White House Historical Association

The White House Museum

The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families by Betty Monkman

Inside the White House: Stories from the World’s Most Famous Residence by Noel Grove

Designing Camelot: The Kennedy Restoration of the White House by James Abbott

Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House by William Allman and Melissa Naulin

Antiques Forum Lecture Highlights, Part I

I just arrived home this weekend from my first Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, and I’m starting to recover from the sensory overload. It just happened to be the most beautiful weekend here in Southern California. It’s almost as if the weather gods were making a conscious effort to highlight the benefits of living here, knowing that I’d return home from Virginia with a partial desire to drop everything and move back east where the antiques are.

The conference did seem at times to be an eerily on-the-mark sales pitch, tailor-made to talk me into relocation. I met people from all up and down the east coast, around the south, and even a few from the midwest—several of whom had recently retired in and around Williamsburg to be closer to the historic area. Well doesn’t that sound like a fabulous plan? Sign me up. As for the lectures, they were all wonderful (and quite varied in topics), but I thought I’d share with you some thoughts on a few particular favorites, in no particular order.

Carolyn J. Weekley, Painters and Paintings in the Early American South. This lecture accompanied a relatively new exhibition in the DeWitt Wallace galleries (Colonial Williamsburg’s decorative arts museum). Having read Carolyn’s book of the same title in preparation for my trip, I got a lot more out of both the exhibit and the lecture. In the book, she discusses a wide range of paintings, from early European depictions of native towns, to pre-Audubon natural history studies, to portraits of the growing upper and middling classes in the early south. Portraits (the focus of her lecture) were by far the most popular and abundant type of painting in early America, as in England. Southern clients made use of a wide array of portrait painters, from local talent (those trained as portrait artists as well as those trained in sign/coach/house painting looking to broaden their offerings), to itinerant painters in search of new commissions, to foreign masters working abroad or their students arriving back in the colonies.


Reading up before my trip: Painters and Paintings in the Early American South by Carolyn Weekley

A longtime fan of northern portrait artists John Singleton Copley and Ralph Earl, I enjoyed learning some new names I hadn’t previously been exposed to. My favorite was Henry Benbridge, whose striking portrait of Charlotte Pepper Gignilliat was understandably chosen as the cover art for both the exhibit and the book. (Side note: check out this story of someone finding a portrait miniature by Benbridge in the dirt on her property!) However, it never ceases to amaze me how even modern photographic and printing technology simply cannot replicate the experience of seeing a painting in person. While reading Carolyn’s book, I didn’t pick up on Benbridge as a particular favorite. It wasn’t until I saw the exhibit for myself that his paintings jumped out at me as beautifully realistic, sensitive, and vibrant—despite the awkward and unexplained head proportions of Mr. and Mrs. William Boswell Lamb. In the end though, I hope southern art enthusiasts won’t begrudge me this confession: the highlight of the exhibit for me was seeing John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Henry Laurens, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted just after Laurens’s release from imprisonment in the Tower of London during the American Revolution (he was exchanged for General Lord Cornwallis). I’m not sure if it’s just me projecting, but I feel a sense of discomfort and unease in the picture. No doubt it took some time for Laurens to readjust after spending 15 months in prison. The portrait, like most by Copley, is beyond magnificent.


Henry Laurens, by John Singleton Copley, via Wikimedia Commons

Shelley Svoboda, Behind the Scenes, Beneath the Layers: Conservation of Southern Paintings. This lecture was enthralling. Who doesn’t love a great before-and-after comparison? Whether it’s the makeover of a boring living room on HGTV, or the professional restoration of a precious 18th century portrait, we love to bear witness to a dazzling transformation. Even better is a glimpse behind the scenes to see how it’s done. Shelley Svoboda shared some captivating stories of how she and her team salvage antique paintings from the ravages of time, environment, and less careful or talented restoration “experts” that have come before them.

Shelley worked on many of the paintings now installed in Painters and Paintings in the Early American South. She shared some particular examples with us, including the astonishing restoration of Robert Feke’s portraits of William and Elizabeth Nelson, which had suffered from poorly done overpainting in an earlier restoration. In particular, Mrs. Nelson’s face and right hand had been overpainted so crudely that they masked Feke’s skill, obscuring completely his original artwork. With careful removal of the overpainted areas, Shelley and her team were able to get down to what was left of the original paint. Using this remaining paint as a guide—as well as careful comparison with other related portraits by the artist—they were able to fill in only the areas where color was actually missing, and not over any of Feke’s original paint. In another example, an early game of lawn bowling was uncovered in the background of a portrait! It had been completely painted over during a previous “restoration.” Who knows what other details like this have been lost to the over-zealous or uninformed “restorations” of the past? With the use of reversible techniques, copious documentation, and a minimalist approach to restoration, modern conservators like Shelley are on a mission to make sure that the art of the past will be well-preserved for the future. (For more on the chemistry of conservation, check out this article on Shelley and her chemist colleague from the College of William and Mary)

Stay tuned for more lecture highlights in Part II…

And check out my new Pinterest board on 18th c. portraits