Curating Asian Art

Ask the Expert: RK Moorthy: 7 things for all collectors to know

IMG_9716_grandeThey say the devil is in the details and more so in the antique industry where forgery and fake antiques is sadly a big business. Separating the chaff from the wheat isn’t all that easy and certainly not for those who casually browse vintage shops. One man however, has created a name for himself as a meticulous antiques connoisseur.  With over 40 years of experience as an antiques dealer and forgeries expert, Mumbai-based RK Moorthy is highly respected as a leading international authority in his field. His innate ability to identify genuine antiques and knowledge of Indian colonial furniture is possibly unparalleled in the business. A number of museums, both Indian and International, have worked with him to both confirm the authenticity of their existing collections as well as the purchase of future pieces.

Lack of knowledge, a previous bad experience with a dealer, or horror stories from friends are enough to deter many a potential buyer and considering that substantial sums of money are involved, caution is understandable and advisable. As The Vintage Cart’s chief curating specialist, Moorthy suggests seven questions to consider before buying a Colonial piece of furniture or an Indian artifact.

Does this antique fit my purpose?

When a buyer is considering a particular piece, he should be able to discuss with his dealer the appropriateness of the piece for his purpose. Antiques can be bought for investment, for daily family use, or for strictly decorative purposes. A piece which has had major restoration may not qualify as an investment. If the piece is primarily decorative, then age will be less important than high style and finesse.

How does this antique rate in terms of quality of design, color and finish?

The first thing you see when you look at an antique is its lines. Design is of great importance, because if the piece is not a beautiful thing in its own right, it really doesn’t matter how old it is or in what condition. Stand back and look at the piece as a whole to evaluate the success of its design. Color is perhaps the next most obvious attribute and any fine antique should have a lovely warm mellow color, a patina that only comes with a great many years of natural aging. Stripping can ruin an antique while refinishing may enhance it. When done properly, with careful removal of old wax and dirt first, this procedure will not spoil the patina, which comes from the wood itself.

How the piece is constructed and from what wood is it made?

Learn to recognize the basic woods, as identification is important in determining quality of construction and age. The basic woods used in furniture are Teakwood, Rosewood, Padouk Wood, Mahogany and exotic woods such as Satinwood, Ebony and Calamander.

How do I know if it is a genuinely old piece or a reproduction?

Identifying the age of a piece requires years of experience, but one element you should look out for is one that is very hard to simulate – patination. Patination is the natural discoloration wood in the areas which have not been polished, such as the back, the drawer lining, or the fly rails on tables. Patination should not be confused with patina, which refers to the polished surfaces.

What repairs and restoration has it had?

Nearly every 18th and 19th-century piece of furniture surviving today has had some repair work. Inlay pops out as it shrinks, chair legs dragged over dirt and stone floors wear down, pieces of molding come loose when old glue gives out, etc. But some repairs will have a profound effect on the value of a piece, and you should look for these. Has a leg been replaced, for example – look for a joint and a difference in color. Turn the piece upside down and look for newer wood, patches, screws, modern nails. If the surface is too perfect, be wary. Many pieces have been greatly reconditioned and passed off as original, are found in the market. It is fine to buy a piece which has had work done on it, but you should know what has been done before you buy, and your dealer should point out these repairs to you.

How do I know if it is a made up piece, a marriage, altered in size, or an out and out fake?

A reputable and knowledgeable dealer is your best protection against unwittingly purchasing such a piece. But you should be aware that a whole industry has been at work manufacturing or ‘improving’ antiques, converting large chests on chest, for example, into more desirable and saleable small bachelors chests; changing pole screens into candle stands; adding upper bookcase sections to secretaries, converting chests of drawers into kneehole desks, etc. Careful examination may reveal many alterations. On a piece with an upper and lower section, look at the sides to be sure that the graining and color are the same.

How do I care for this antique?

Extremes of humidity are as hard on wood as they are on people. A humidifier in winter and air conditioning in summer will help to equalize the extremes of climate. Surfaces should be dusted with a clean soft cloth or a feather duster. Wax should be applied no more than every six months. Oils and sprays should never be used. Ask your dealer if any special care is necessary for your piece. More care must be taken, for example, with a veneered top to a dining table than with a solid top, as veneer is more susceptible to heat damage. Choose your dealer as carefully as you would select your antiques. If your dealer has a reputation for integrity, knowledge and good taste, then you are half way to finding fine antiques for your use and enjoyment.




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