An Eye for the Old

DeSoto: Exploring the South January 2008

Written by B. Crawford Whitham

Photographed by Dana Finimore

Press Photo Press Photo

The exploration of antiques is an adventure in time and history. One of the joys is the tangible link with the past. It is fun to romanticize about who sat at that desk, reclined on that sofa or held that beautiful vase in his hands.

What kind of lives did they lead and could they have imagined maybe centuries later that another individual was enjoying the same piece? It is our nature to be curious about the past and the evolution of furniture.

For the novice collector, it is essential to be educated in certain areas; this can be achieved through the library, reputable dealer and visiting auction houses featuring fine antiques.

Bill Eubanks, founder and CEO of William R. Eubanks Interior Design Inc. in Memphis and Palm Beach, Florida, has had honors and awards heaped upon him as he traveled the world for his clients. He was selected as one of the Top Fifty Designers in the United States by Elements of Living in April 2007.

Eubanks advises, “As a serious new collector of antiques, it is important to do your homework. Acquaint yourself with furniture periods and styles. As more knowledge is acquired about the intricate and storied history of furniture, individuals will discover what is appealing to them.

“This novice stage of learning is an important foundation in your education, because antique collecting often becomes a lifelong passion.”

Eubanks cautions, “It is important to identify your preferences - whether your tastes flows to Italian, Asian, French or English. Pay attention to what you like - what appeals to you, rather than what is popular. Right now there is a trend toward French furniture, but that could change next year.”

Eubanks further advises that it is better not to select pieces of the popular trend, because you will pay more now than when trends change to a new direction: “Start by buying smaller pieces and as you gain confidence, go to the right guide who is educated to give the correct information. Your designer should be able to direct you in your search for investment antiques that will create a beautiful home for you and make you happy with your surroundings.”

Ida Manheim, owner of Ida Manheim Antiques in New Orleans, advises new collectors to visit a long established gallery where they will receive a certificate of authenticity and a guarantee of return for credit. She states, “Due to the scarcity of walnut, the rare period pieces are in great demand, particularly the William and Mary and the Queen Anne style. The very early pieces have skyrocketed in cost.

“It is important to make selections according to your taste.”

Dana Vorhees, general manger of Sheffield’s Antiques Mall in Collierville, says, “The words ‘antique’ and ‘true antique’ are interchangeable. The word ‘antique’ simply means old, and collectors must consider many factors in order to determine if an item is a true antique.

“In furniture, I would examine the patina of the primary wood on the top and front of a piece and also the construction of the secondary woods in the drawers and backing where an oxide develops. That is difficult to fake,” says Voorhees. He adds that United States Customs considers any piece more than 100 years old to be a “true antique.”

Mary LeFlore of Antiques on Main in Southaven says collectors looking for quality pieces should pay attention to the wood; it should be heavier. She adds, “Also pay attention to the joints and make sure the dovetails are intact and that parts (screws or nails) have been added or replaced on an item. A good examination could save you from purchasing an inferior piece that may need costly repairs.”

The styles listed below are a brief insight of the evolution of furniture over the centuries: The Baroque Style, c. 1620-1700, originated in Italian painting, sculpture and architecture and later reached its height in France where it was made by the most gifted craftsmen. The style is recognized by motifs which included swags, masks, lion’s-paw feet and chinoiseries. Luxurious and expensive materials were used and the forms were heavy and sculptural.

The Rococo Style, c. 1720-60, appeared in France in the early 18th century when designers took a lighter and more exotic approach. This style was very popular in Europe in the 1730s.

The Neoclassical Style, c. 1760-1800, was a revival of interest in Greek and Roman antiquity. The style was easily recognized by the egg-and-dart shapes, honeysuckle flowers and festoons. It was more simple and austere and the colors were pale and sober.

The Federal Style, c. 1776-1815, was popular because it reflected a bond between ancient Rome and the United States of America. This style is recognized by its light and elegant shapes and less ornament. The main motifs included delicate scrolls, urns, shells and fans and the use of mahogany with indigenous woods such as maple.

The Regency Style, c.1810-1830, was named after George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV of England (1820-1830). The style was heavier, larger and more ornamented. It was more exotic, incorporating Turkish, Indian and Egyptian motifs. Rich materials featured brass inlay, ivory and ebony handles and wood such as rosewood and ebony.

For those not quite ready to take the investment plunge, there are many fine reproductions that should give years of satisfaction. They can be used and abused. But don’t be confused - they are not the real thing.