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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER XXIII MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
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 Carved wood—Artistic furniture—Wood staining and patina—The merits of elbow-grease—Painted and lacquered furniture—Veneer and inlaid work—Musical instruments—Imitations and fakers of musical instruments—Connoisseurship of musical instruments twofold—Attribution and labels—Some good imitators—The violin as example—The restoration and odd adventures of well-known musical instruments—Legends and anecdotes that help—Analysis of form and of sound—Rossini’s saying.

The finest pieces of faked furniture are very rarely entirely new, sometimes they are old pieces to which rich ornaments have been added; at other times, and this is the most common occurrence, they are put together from fragments belonging to two, three, or even four different pieces, the parts and debris, in fact, of old broken furniture. There is also the entirely new fake imitating old furniture, but this is rarely as convincing as the other which is the really dangerous type even for an experienced collector.

Impressed by the great amount of faked furniture glutting the Paris market, Paul Eudel says, “in principle there is no more such a thing as antique furniture. All that is sold is false or terribly repaired.”

In Italy, that inexhaustible mine of past art, it is still possible to find genuine pieces, provided, of course, that the collector does not insist upon having those first-rate pieces now belonging to museums or collections formed several years ago. There are, however, in Italy, as in every other country, modern productions of antique furniture for the novices in the collector’s career. This furniture may be280 carved out of old pieces of wood or ordinary wood. In both cases it is generally necessary to give an old colouring to the wood, for which there are a variety of methods according to the desired effect, tone, colour, etc. Many use walnut-juice, others permanganate of potash, and still others the more drastic system of burning the surface of the wood with acid. The old way of imitating worm-holes was to use buckshot, a ridiculous method which nevertheless had its vogue and apparently satisfied the gross eye of some collectors. Nowadays worm-holes are made with an instrument that imitates them to perfection, although they do not go so deep as the genuine ones, and this difference, by the way, is one of the tests to tell real worm-holes from spurious ones. As new furniture that imitates old is generally too sharp-edged and neatly finished, it is usually subjected to a regular course of ill-treatment. French dealers call this process “aviler un meuble,” and it consists of pounding with heavy sticks, rubbing with sand-paper, pumice, etc.

The finishing touch, that peculiar polished surface characterizing ancient furniture, is usually given by friction with wool after a slight coating of benzine in which a little wax has been dissolved. The less wax used and the more elbow-grease, the more will the polish resemble that of real old furniture and the more difficult does it become to detect the deceit. If much wax has been used the scratch of a needle is sufficient to reveal even the thinnest layer, but if it is so imperceptible as to stand this test it is very difficult to tell the real from the imitation. The polished parts of an old piece of furniture are not casual but the result of long use. Prominent parts are naturally, therefore, the ones to get so polished rather than other parts.

I remember witnessing a curious sight one day when admitted to the sanctum of a well-known antiquary. Half a dozen stools had been repaired, most generously repaired, a new patina had been given and now they were to receive the last touches, the polished parts that add such charm to old furniture. The workman who had half finished the job281 kept passing and repassing close to the stools which he had arranged in a row, rubbing his legs against each one. I asked him the meaning of the performance and he answered that as there were no sharp edges on the lower part of those sixteenth-century walnut stools, he wanted to find out where and to what extent they would be most polished by use. Not having a genuine stool from which to copy, he had resorted to this means so as to make no mistake. I very nearly asked him if he thought everyone was the same height and had the same length of leg. But as the work proceeded I gathered from the practical application of his method, better than I could have done from any explanation, that he was endeavouring to get a mere hint, where to begin to rub with his pad, in order to produce that vague patch of hollows one notices sometimes in church benches.

The same patience is necessary in making imitation worm-holes, which are so cunningly distributed, so convincingly worked in their erratic manner of piercing wood as to suggest to Edmond Bonnaffé the fine bit of sarcasm: “Des vers savants chargés de fouiller le bois neuf à la demande.”

That piecemeal kind of furniture, the parts of which are unquestionably antique but of various origins, being the remains of more than one piece of furniture—l’assemblage, as the French call it—may prove a danger to the best connoisseurs if done well and with taste. In certain respects the piece is genuinely antique, but not exactly as the collector understands the word, hence its fraudulency entitles it to be classified among fakes. It is incredible what an industrious antiquary is able to do in the way of piecing furniture together. This consists not merely of finding a top for table-legs, or legs for a table-top, but there is no limit to the invention of this piecemeal furniture. A wooden door may furnish the back of a throne when well matched with a rich old coffer; the gilded ornamentation of an altar may be transformed into the head of a Louis XV bed, and so on. In the same way a simple piece of furniture may be enriched by attaching ornaments, coats of arms, etc. The whole is invariably282 toned and harmonized by means of one of the above-mentioned methods.

Naturally, ignorance of style sometimes leads some fakers to extremely amusing blunders, but it must be confessed the cases are rare, and this piecemeal furniture has been palmed off on too many connoisseurs, and graces too many well-reputed collections to be dismissed with a smile of incredulity. Were antiquaries more disposed to talk or less indulgent towards the conceit of collectors, it might be learnt that all the rich furniture sold during the last twenty years to museums and collectors belongs to this composite order.

A special branch of the imitation of antique furniture is inlaid work, the French marqueterie and Italian tarsia, by which designs are traced upon the surface by inlaying wood, ivory or metal. There are various epochs and styles of inlaid furniture. One may begin with the geometrical patterns of the Trecento or the cappuccino of about the same time and later, and gradually pass through the many styles and methods to the complex ornamentation of Buhl’s work.

The early work, including the cappuccino, a peculiar inlaid ivory work with geometric patterns, is very well imitated in Italy where restorers of this kind of furniture generally turn into good imitators, and become at times impenitent fakers of the most fantastic would-be old style. Skill in inlaying wood and ivory according to different epochs and the ordinary collector’s love of ornamented furniture have suggested to some imitators the most absurd combinations of styles, a riot of incongruity and incompatibility. It is not rare to see fine chairs that would otherwise be tasteful............
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