For most people, buying anything antique is tricky business since there's a persistent fear that an expensive purchase might not be authentic. Buying American furniture can be particularly tricky, because pieces in the Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal tastes have been made from the 18th century to the present day. Since these styles were widely interpreted in their own eras and have survived and been revived for so long, often it's difficult to tell whether something is old, very old or not so old.
The good news for those furnishing a house or apartment, or starting a collection on a budget, is that there are some good values in the "not so old" category, so long as pieces are priced and sold honestly. (Always ask for a receipt clearly describing and dating what you're buying; good dealers should stand by their descriptions.) For example, a growing number of serious antiquers are focusing on Colonial Revival furniture (made after the nation's 1876 Centennial celebration); after all, some Centennial furniture, as it's often called, is over 100 years old, finely made and has a warm patina of age.
Others who want a Colonial look and aren't finicky about authenticity are finding good buys in "grandmother's furniture," antique reproductions manufactured in the period between World War I and World War II. Current reproductions, many licensed by museums, often combine good quality with easy availability, although the best can be expensive.
When an old chest of drawers costs $300, few people worried if it was a genuine antique or not. It probably was -- it didn't pay to fake it. But that's changing now that 18th-century Chippendale chests can cost $3,000, $30,000 or even $300,000 each. Collectors, dealers and museum curators slowly are coming out of the woodwork, admitting they've been fooled now and then by particularly good fakes or restored pieces. They're increasingly cautious before making expensive acquisitions and are investing honing their connoisseur's skills.
Education can make savvier consumers, so more and more museums, universities, auction houses and dealers are sponsoring seminars, producing video tapes and mounting exhibitions to give collectors the information they need to buy with confidence.
What hasn't changed over the years is that the best ways to
learn about antiques are visiting museums, reading extensively, questioning experts, mastering proper terminology and examining objects first-hand -- letting them communicate to you what they are.
The Winterthur Museum in Delaware, long an educational leader in the field of American decorative arts, recently opened two permanent exhibitions in its new Henry S. McNeil Gallery. The "Furniture Study" exhibit illustrates 14 ways to judge an object's quality and authenticity, criteria equally "applicable to baseball cards," according to Winterthur's director, Dwight P. Lanmon. "Survivals and Revivals" displays works by seven 19th- and 20th-century furniture makers who copied designs from the Colonial era. (For exhibition information, write to Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del. 19735, or call  888-4600.)
"Nothing is a fake until it's sold with the intent to defraud," says Winterthur's furniture curator, Robert Trent, who views Colonial Revival pieces as worthy of serious study. The reproduction furniture exhibited "is not a cheap substitute for period furniture, it stands on its own," he contends.
"Colonial Revival furniture is an excellent value. The craftsmanship is superb, and it generally sells for a fraction of what a period piece goes for," says Ronald Bourgeault, of Northeast Auctions, in Hampton, N.H., who recently sold for $1,320 a Philadelphia Chippendale style carved mahogany armchair from the late 19th century, which once belonged to William Maxwell Evarts, President Rutherford B. Hayes' secretary state. "Had the chair been made a century earlier, it would have brought $250,000," Mr. Bourgeault says.
Even experts admit that looks can be deceiving. "It isn't so easy to tell the difference between 100 and 150 years of wear," notes Deborah Dependahl Waters, curator of "Is It Phyfe?" an exhibit worth seeing at the Museum of the City of New York, through Oct. 24. (For information call  534-1672.) Side by side for the first time are masterpieces by Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), a prolific New York cabinetmaker whose name has become synonymous with neo-classical furniture, and reproductions of his work by Ernest F. Hagen (1830-1913) and the Company of Master Craftsmen. For years many of these copies were attributed to Phyfe, and the exhibit helps tell the difference.
"To buy revival furniture intelligently, a collector should be familiar with the real thing," advises Stephen I. Fletcher, an Americana expert at Skinner Inc., of Bolton, Mass., which auctions plenty of revival pieces by late 19th-century makers such as Irving & Casson and A. H. Davenport, both of Cambridge, Mass., and Paine Furniture, of Boston. He's quick to point out that many copies have slightly altered proportions or incorporate details that didn't exist on authentic 18th-century examples. "Because Colonial Revival furniture is not pure, a lot of people turn up their noses at it, but once you look at it for what it is, it's great stuff," Mr. Fletcher observes.
Fakes vs. reproductions
Often it takes turning over chairs or turning around desks to know what you're really looking at. In Winterthur's Furniture Study exhibition, comparing two Windsor armchairs shows how careful consumers must be to avoid mistakes. One armchair is clearly branded under its seat with the mark of Wallace Nutting (1861-1941), a famous photographer, writer, collector and furniture manufacturer. (Nutting's well-made reproductions are collectible in their own right.) The other chair has no maker's mark and several worn layers of paint, suggesting a long history of hard use. However, closer examination of the unmarked chair's crest rail reveals a striking similarity to the Nutting example. Both were made in the 20th century. While Nutting's marked chair is an honest reproduction, the unmarked chair is a fake, meant to deceive people into thinking it's the real McCoy.
For a piece to be authentic, factors such as its form, finish, construction, history of ownership, condition, ornamentation and overall appearance "have to add up," says Leigh Keno, an Americana dealer in New York, who looks for tell-tale signs of age such as the marks left by opening and closing drawers, wear on feet, or how a piece's finish has aged. "Many beginning collectors might not consider a piece's finish to be very important," says Mr. Keno, noting that's precisely how they're fooled by fakes. "An old finish helps guarantee that all parts of a piece are original," he claims, adding, "If the paint on a Windsor chair is new, how do you know that all the stretchers are original?" (Fakers also often try imitating the "grungy look" of an authentic old finish.)
At Winterthur a painted side chair and two painted card tables are used to show how modern finishes look different from old ones. The chair, never cleaned or refinished, has an aged brown patina which some collectors prefer. One table has been cleaned and the original paint restored to look much as it did when new. The other table has been cleaned down to the original paint but not restored. In another section of the gallery, a drawer from a 200-year-old chamber table shows the oxidized color of old wood, darker in front where light hits it more often, lighter where it never sees the sun's rays. Next to it, a drawer from a faked washstand, made between 1900 and 1950, has been stained to simulate oxidation, but lacks the subtle gradations of color often likened to the browning of a sliced apple.
Tools of the trade
A true survivor in the world of American decorative arts is the list of 14 points of connoisseurship which the late Charles F. Montgomery taught to a generation of museum curators at Winterthur, where he was director and senior research fellow from 1952 to 1970, and then as a professor at Yale University, where he also was curator of Yale Art Gallery's Mabel Brady Garvan and Related Collections of Americana. Mr. Montgomery's points for judging an item's authenticity are: finish, form, condition, history of ownership, attribution, style, function, craft technique, trade practices, materials, color, overall appearance, ornament and evaluation. In a marriage of old and new technologies, each point is explained in Winterthur's "Furniture Study" exhibit on labels, touch-screen computers and audio tapes in English, Japanese, Spanish, French and German. Laminated cards printed with pictures provide a glossary of terms, and Please Touch displays enable exhibit-goers to handle tools and samples of woods and finishes.
Dale Hunt, of the Pembroke Shop, in Wayne, Pa., sees great value in "traditional" American furniture made from around 1900 to 1930. He sells refinished 1930s Duncan Phyfe-style pedestal-based dining tables for $3,000 to $4,000; a comparable piece from Winterthur's reproduction line, made by Kindel, retails for around $8,000 in stores like Noriega Furniture in San Francisco, Marshall Field's in Chicago, and Paine Furniture in Boston.
"Antique examples of many of the forms I sell, such as small sideboards or banquet tables, simply don't exist, or if they do, they're very expensive," Mr. Hunt says, adding that the market for reproductions "hasn't experienced the price fluctuations of the antiques market. It's been solid and steady for the past decade."
' Solis-Cohen Enterprises