By Fred Taylor
Geology is the history of the Earth as recorded in rocks, and professional geologists have a concept called “ground truth.” In geology, it appears that no matter how much you study in the classroom, no matter how many lectures you attend, no matter how many samples you handle and how many photographs you absorb, nothing gets you closer to the truth about rocks than actually being there — on the ground, on the rocks. Being there allows you to see the real thing, to uncover fresh rocks, and feel the texture of the Earth. That’s “ground truth.”
To some extent, the same concept applies to older and antique furniture. You can read the best books on the subject, surf online reading articles and auction reports, watch videos about antique furniture, and hang out with Antiques Roadshow through last year’s reruns and you will be considered “knowledgeable” on the subject. But, will you really know anything about it?
That’s where getting some “ground truth” comes into play. You have to get out there where the ground is to get some truth. That means you have to go where the antiques are to actually see them. But there’s much more to the truth than just seeing the antiques. Like the geologist, you need to feel the rocks and see the layers to understand the lectures and books, the photos, and the descriptions.
Often, that’s easier said than done. Where do you go to see “the real thing”? Well, it depends on what your definition of “the real thing” happens to be. If you are talking about 18th-century American antique furniture and decorative arts, your best bet is to go to a major metropolitan museum such as Winterthur or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Colonial Williamsburg is a great place to see the real thing, and there are hundreds of local and regional museums and exhibits all over the country, including such gems as the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Mich., the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., just waiting to be found and explored. There are also traveling exhibits that give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a great collection from a museum or display.
But, there’s a catch. You can’t play with the stuff in the museum or the traveling exhibit. They are real touchy about the artifacts and there is usually absolutely no physical interaction. That’s a real drawback in the search for furniture ground truth if the 18th century is your target.
But, not everybody is looking for additional insight into 18th-century furniture. Most of us are perfectly happy with more recent items, as long as they fit our personal definition of “the real thing,” and there is an enormous quantity of American furniture out there from the 19th century and from the early 20th century that falls into someone’s category of “antique.”
So, what do you need to do to get some ground truth if seeing a relevant example is not the whole picture? You need to absorb. Since you can’t learn everything there is to know about all furniture from all periods in all styles, the first thing you have to do is specialize. Decide what style or period or form of furniture you want to learn about this time out.
Suppose you want to become more familiar with furniture that falls in the “golden oak” category. After reading some of the relevant books on the subject such as American Oak Furniture by Kathryn McNerney (Collector Books), The Best of Golden Oak Furniture by Nancy Schiffer (Schiffer Publishing), and Encyclopedia of American Oak Furniture by Robert W. and Harriet Swedberg (Krause Publications), you need to go where oak furniture is available for you to look at and study. The key point here is that you need to go where you trust the identification process. You need to have absolute confidence that the pieces you will see are, in fact, American oak furniture from the “golden oak” period.
Once you have that assurance, what do you do next? You take your time. That piece of furniture has been around for a hundred years or so and it probably will be there a little longer. Just have a seat and leisurely examine the piece, absorbing every possible detail. Note the overall scale and dimension. Is it what you expected? Can you see the difference between it and furniture from another style or period? Notice the construction techniques — veneered or solid, handmade or machine-made joinery, applied or carved molding and decoration, solid flat panels or early century plywood, solid or plywood drawer bottoms, solid or plated hardware, casters or flat feet. The wood itself is very important. Is it actually “golden oak” (i.e. white oak) or is it red oak? Could it be elm or hickory, ash or chestnut? All of these look-alike woods are mixed into the period. Study the stylistic elements. Do you recognize details seen in other styles and periods, both before and after this one? Is the overall look appealing to the eye or is it too heavy or too spindly, too overdone or too plain, too crude or too slick? Feel it, smell it, heft its components — become absolutely familiar with it. That’s how you get “ground truth.”
The same approach works for all periods and styles. You just have to pick your venue carefully. Auction previews are a great place to go to see and learn, listen, and compare. Most good shops will let you look and touch and ask penetrating questions, and most show venues allow a lot of latitude. Just be respectful of other people’s merchandise while you get some truth.