Why Antiques Get Mis-Attributed – Six Reasons

by John Werry on December 8, 2010

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Unfortunately, identifying an antique’s manufacturer is sometimes an art and not always a science.  It is not often that a 19th Century item has a patent existing to help us easily identify the maker as does the “lollipop chair” (as we call it today – he never did) by Hunzinger, above.  Absent a definitive mark somewhere on a piece, one has to revert to being Sherlock Holmes to come up with a reasonable story.  I’ve come up with my personal list of six potential reasons why antiques can get mis-attributed by their seller/owner:

  1. Innocent, lack of knowledge, mis-attributions – the seller/owner bought it from someone that passed on a particular maker’s name or maybe they have seen similar styles with an attributed maker but do not have the expertise or knowledge to say otherwise.
  2. Good Intentioned mis-attributions – the seller/owner has done all the research that can be reasonably expected of someone and has put together a reasonable case for a strong attribution to a particular maker’s shop.  However, due to lack of a key piece of information being known or available to them, they get it wrong.
  3. Semi-innocent mis-attributions – the seller/owner has a fair amount of knowledge, isn’t for sure of the maker, but assigns a name that could reasonably be possible and that name garners more $$.  Better to be overly-optimistic since there are no repercussions to not do so.  Those potential buyers that know better about the attribution won’t buy it and those that don’t know may buy it based on the prestige.
  4. Un-innnocent mis-attributions – the seller/owner purposefully trumps up the maker yet puts a sub-normal price on the piece that doesn’t represent anyway near the fair market value of that maker (a sure sign they know it probably isn’t by that shop), hoping that someone will bid up the piece to the level normally seen for that maker.  They are happy to sell their $600 “Herter Brothers” chair for $600, but secretly wish buyers will bid it up to $40,000 if they put that name on it.
  5. Denial mis-attributions – the seller/owner falls into categories 1, 2, or 3 above and is subsequently presented with very strong information to the contrary of their original attribution and refuse to rectify it.  The denial can either be due to the seller/owner’s self-delusional convictions about their original attribution, or can be due to the desire to keep the price at the most favorable level (the better maker’s name).
  6. Blatent Lie mis-attributions – the seller/owner purposefully trumps up the maker for increasing an items worth, knowing that no one can or will call them on it due to lack of definitive means of identifying antiques with 100% certainty.  No one will be able to call them on their visibly impressive (and believable) Aesthetic “Herter Brothers” cabinet from New York with an $80,000 price tag that actually was made by an unrelated shop in England and came here on a container ship.

Personally, I try to keep myself in categories 1 & 2 above.  What do you think?  Did I miss any scenarios?

Here is the relevant Hunzinger chair patent related to the top image, below:

George Hunzinger Lollipop Patent e1291826395786 Why Antiques Get Mis Attributed   Six Reasons

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

chris kennedy December 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

and thus the descending categories of authorship; a definitive unqualified statement as to maker or designer, attributed to, or ‘in the style of, manner of, or after. The last category is the most subjective of the lot because it relies purely on one’s own opinion. I’ve always felt the great bulk of misattributions lay in the never-never land of wishful thinking. A note about No.6. Willful misrepresentation of an object’s worth with forehand knowledge that the representation is false goes by another name… fraud.

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Kerry Shrives December 9, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Connoisseurship (or lack of) plays such a determining role in mis-attributions. In absence of a label, presumptions need to be made based on a set of attributes. Knowing that John Henry Belter manufactured laminated furniture isn’t enough. You need to be able to identify the type of wood used, number of laminate layers, the intricacies & quality of carving, and so forth. If everyone could accomplish this, there would be no need for us “experts.”

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Funbud December 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm

I think another factor that plays into mis-attributions is fashion, or perhaps it should be termed the “scholarship of the moment”. I can remember accompanying a dealer (the late Joy Freeman) to a dealer’s barn in Connecticut in the early 1980s to look at some Renaissance Revival pieces. Among them was an enormous rosewood sofa, with “confidant” end seats, very much in the Second Empire taste, with incising, gilding, and a porcelain plaque in the crest. There were no maker’s marks on it. When questioned the dealer replied “Well, we’re calling it Pottier & Stymus”. As it happened, at that time, there had been a number of articles which mentioned Pottier & Stymus in the trade publications. A decade later, he would probably have said “Well, we’re calling it Herter Brothers”.

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