Fakes and phonies are stopped with a squint. Curator John Davis discusses the subtleties of form.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
In the collectors' world, fakes and forgeries sneak in through every crack, like burglars at a bank. John Davis, a senior curator at Colonial Williamsburg, is here with me now to talk about how museum staff detect the impostors, and how the phonies can be an art in themselves.
I guess that's true in almost every field. Sometimes the phonies are as good as the real thing, except they're not made from as good material.
John Davis: And it's one of those things in which the monetary value of objects – especially old objects, ones that have historical associations – keep growing in amount. That, of course, prompts forgeries and fakes on the part of various people.
Lloyd: I guess as long as there's been anything of value, there's been somebody there willing to cheat.
Lloyd: How do you detect a fake metal object?
John: Well personally, the first thing I probably do when I see a new object is to look at it, sometimes almost squinting, to get some sense of its general form and how all the elements are disposed. What is the relationship of the various parts, and does it have a sense of rhythm and rightness to it? Is there something that's out of place or discordant, or hesitant in the composition of the object? Does this appear to be a good, desirable, and useful object for whatever purpose?
Oftentimes, just that initial sense of, does the object hang together in your mind's eye, does it relate to all the previous examples you've seen? Does it appear to be better or worse, or average, or superior? Really, how would you begin to think about this object as far as the quality of it is concerned? You get some idea, just the stance of the object. Whether it stands there somewhat on its toes like a ballerina, or does it sit there like a tired old man or something? And that is somewhat important.
Then you go from there. Start to look at the object as far as its materials, its construction. Does it follow what you would expect the means of fabrication to be at that time, the technology that was available and utilized for such objects? Or does it depart from that?
Lloyd: So you have to have some skills. I couldn't do it.
John: It helps to have some skills. It's helpful to have some understanding of related objects. A curator tends to file away in his mind endless examples. You look inside objects, see how they are made and put together.
If it's a piece of pewter, and it's a pewter measure of a baluster shape, you expect there to be the castings to be cast in parts, and the parts to be around the widest part of the body. You look inside and you can see the seam and the way it's soldered together. If it's not that way, you wonder, "Why isn't it that way?"
In the same way, you pick up an antique pewter porringer. The handle, in order to make it very strongly bonded to the body, the pewterer would take the mold for the handle and literally clamp it on to the cast body of the object, then pour molten metal into the mold for the handle.
Now, in order to stop the molten metal from running into the bowl, right through the bowl, and into the object, in the clamping of the mold they include a piece of wet cloth to act as a stop, as a dam. It interrupts the flow of the molten metal and assists in the consolidation of the molten metal. So it just stops at that point.
In so doing, there is invariably on the inside of the bowl a little textured patch, which is the impression of the cloth. The shape of the impression is that of the handle. If it has a little bracket under the handle against the body, all that shows on the face of the object.
Probably most curators, most dealers, most collectors are unwilling to acquire or to sell or to collect a pewter porringer in which that linen mark is not there.
That's just one of any number of things that one has to bring to the table when you see a new object and you're examining it and you're wondering whether it's right or wrong. It's part of the way the object would have been made and put together at that time.
Lloyd: As a curator of metals, do people intentionally try to lead you astray?
John: I think one does not want to think necessarily that we have people plotting against us personally or against the organization or whatever. I think there are people that want to move something along that they might think is not quite right or not quite good. They would like to retrieve their money, or maintain their livelihood or whatever it may be.
I think there is oftentimes a, perhaps a lack of total understanding on the part of people. Curators get fooled and dealers handle objects that they hope and think are right. We often discuss objects with dealers and collectors and so forth, just being able to authenticate the object and be assured that it is a good object to begin with.
Lloyd: One of the few areas where I've seen people say, "This is fake, and this is no good," is in the movies. When people in the movies say that, do they get it right?
John: We all are learning, I think. America and other places are learning from shows like "The [Antiques] Roadshow." "The [Antiques] Roadshow"is very useful, and it also prompts one to be aware of outright fakes and forgeries, or the various ways in which an object can be diminished.
What you learn as far as the first three characteristics of an object, a desirable object, are concerned: condition, condition, condition. The life that the object has led since it was made is very, very important. Not only as far as how instructive the object is – in various ways as far as the maker and that period, and that material, and that functionality and so forth. It also gives the owner today the chance to have that same experience of newness that the first owner had.
When you see an object which is truly pristine, one gets this tremendous rush. Collectors have to watch out for that, because that rush is allied with a sense of euphoria. If you don't watch out, you'll spend too much money. You may think you're getting a bargain and you're not. It's one of those things you have to control.
I remember being in an antique shop and seeing this most beautiful lantern, wooden lantern. It was absolutely glorious. And then all of a sudden I realized there was no way to get inside it to insert a candle. Yet it looked so absolutely right and beautiful and so forth. I just think it was one of those situations in which somebody perhaps had dollied up a lantern and then forgot to worry about the functionality of the lantern.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) Details of how a lantern works.
John: That's right. But usually what one sees is this lack of, perhaps, of rhythm and of flow in an object. If you're looking an object that is reasonably well made for its period, you're very much aware of the maker having a sense of control over the materials, knowing how to manipulate them and how to create objects. There oftentimes is a sense of tautness to the design, which flows from this mastery of being able to manipulate and form objects out of the material, as well as having a very clear understanding of the design.
If one is turning a Windsor leg, all those little moldings and rings, and perhaps a little raised turned section, all that coheres in a somewhat taut and understood way. If one is perhaps faking or replacing a leg on a Windsor chair, one may not quite understand that sequencing and that tightness and that sense of control and easy mastery that a good and early maker had.
Lloyd: If you're trying to make one, and make it perfect, is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
John: I think it can oftentimes be a disadvantage. You don't give yourself a chance to work your way into the realization of the form. You just make one and you don't quite have the advantage of, say, a potter, who through repetition of the form, by the time he's made 10 of a given bowl or a mug or whatever it may be, understands and his muscles in his hands and his memory responding to that form time after time. That has a way of quickly perfecting in his hands that given form or treatment. If you're faking something, I think it may at times be a little more difficult.