- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

James Rodgers of Manassas can tell treasure from trash. An antiques collector for about 40 years, Mr. Rodgers, 59, has learned to distinguish true gems from items of lesser value.

Recently, he has been shopping for an inlaid secretary desk to add to his collection. In his home, he has various antiques, including china, old firearms, and Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture.

“If you’ve been looking at furniture long enough, you know how to turn a drawer over and look at it and tell if it’s old,” he says. “If I buy a desk and it’s 100-plus years old, it’s worth more tomorrow than it was yesterday. It’s the difference between renting a house and buying a house.”

Although antiques are undoubtedly worth more than their modern equivalents, it’s often difficult to discern the value of the objects. People who have been “antiquing” for a while learn tricks to make estimations.

The best starting point is to find a reputable dealer, says Kurt Kruger, owner of Kruger’s Antique Plus in Annandale. He has known certain dealers to sell China-made copies of Tiffany vases, worth only about $100, for $4,500. A good dealer should be able to explain the history of the objects and the reason for their price.

In addition to finding a fair salesperson, Mr. Kruger suggests developing a critical eye. For instance, look for natural wear on furniture. Drop-leaf tables should have marks where the extra piece of wood holds up the drop-leaf segment of the table top. Bottoms of drawers should have indentations showing wear from the runners.

The biggest difference between antique and more modern furniture is the way it was built, Mr. Kruger says. Factory-made furniture, which saw production start around 1850, has uniform construction, while antique furniture was handmade. Uneven and narrow dovetails on drawers are usually a sure sign a piece is older and handmade.

Another way to estimate the age of a piece is by looking at the saw marks, Mr. Kruger says. Circular saws became popular around 1850, whereas straight-cutting hand saws were used before then. Curves in the saw marks date a piece after 1850. He also says customers should always examinethe bottom of drawers and tables. The backsides of older pieces won’t have been smoothed by sandpaper.

“If you run your hands across something handmade, you will feel valleys every couple inches,” Mr. Kruger says. “If you see an old table and you think it is handmade, you run your hand underneath it. If you feel the ridges, you know it was made by hand and is at least 150 years old.”

Although the majority of a piece of furniture may be old, portions of it may have been adapted throughout the years, which slightly lowers its worth, says Alan Robson, owner of the Great British Pine Mine in Kensington. For instance, feet, knobs or metal hardware, such as locks, often are altered.

“If it has had previous hardware, on the front, back or both, there will be holes drilled at different places,” he says. “It’s not unusual for that to have happened. It doesn’t have a tremendous difference in value for the piece.”

In other instances, the piece may have been more severely manipulated, he says. Sometimes, in hybrid pieces, the furniture may been renovated with multiple types of wood. Legs from one piece may have been married with the body of another, making the differences in the coloration of the wood obvious.

Such manipulation can sometimes make the item unattractive, but it may also make an item more functional; for example, when an armoire is artificially deepened to accommodate a large television.

It’s difficult to say exactly how such changes affect the price of an object, Mr. Robson says. Any time a piece is adapted, the overall value of the item usually decreases. However, the immediate cost of the piece may increase because of the money spent hiring a cabinetmaker to complete the alterations.

“The customers should be told honestly what they’re buying,” Mr. Robson says. “A piece without restoration is more valuable in terms of resale.”

When shopping for lighting fixtures, customers also should inspect them carefully, says John Jenkins, owner of Spurgeon-Lewis Antiques in Alexandria. Original antique period fixtures, such as wall sconces, chandeliers and lamps, were created in the United States from about 1790 to 1810. Around 1890 to 1930, those styles were reproduced. Today, re-creations also are made of the items produced in both eras.

The oldest lighting fixtures are “unelectrified,” Mr. Jenkins says. Throughout the years, many have been adapted to use electricity. From a collector’s point of view, a fixture in its original state is more valuable, but it’s not usually practical for modern life. Some people use candles or oil in them in special instances.

Further, shoppers usually can tell the difference between a fixture from 1790 and 1930 by looking at their design, says Mr. Jenkins. The oldest pieces are hand cast, while the late 19th century and early 20th century fixtures look mass-produced. Also, the electrical parts on reproductions are hidden, while original period pieces that have been electrified have wire attached to the outside.

“It’s always better to know what you’re buying, from automobiles to insurance policies,” Mr. Jenkins says. “There is a limit to how much you have to know. Some people have to know everything and they are hard-core collectors. Other people are just furnishing a beautiful home and don’t want to make it their life’s work to know about antiques.”

If customers want a more exact estimate of items’ worth, they should be taken to an appraiser, says Jean Jackson, owner of Antiques Associates in Arlington. She charges $100 an hour for her appraisal services.

When evaluating objects, she tries to discern whether the piece is composed of its original materials. A furniture piece with original glass is worth more than one with replaced glass. The same is true of glass used in mirrors. Mrs. Jackson also looks at an object’s workmanship and functional use.

Further, she says different types of carvings in furniture can reveal in what part of the country a piece was created, which also could help determine its worth. For instance, magnolias usually signify a southern origin, while nuts usually signify a northern origin.

Upon further inspection, Mrs. Jackson looks for labels and dates. For instance, Hitchcock chairs used specific labels for certain years. Also, china usually is stamped with a trademark and date.

“Everybody thinks everything is worth so much more than it really is,” Mrs. Jackson says. “Most of the pieces are nice and good and people enjoy them. Their history is good, but most of the things are not as valuable as people would like to believe.”

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