Quill and Quire


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Book Reviews


by Donald Webster

Thirty years ago my wife and I bought an ancient pine sideboard from an antique dealer we privately referred to as “The Pirate.”

“Early Upper Canada,” he said as we tied it onto the roof of our car. “Maybe even Loyalist.”

Oddly enough, part of his remarks could have been true. Looking at the sideboard – still in the dining room – after reading Donald Webster’s book on antique fakery, Canfake, I can see some history in my treasure. And some fakery. Or, kindly put, repairs.

The door panels are roughly cut, possibly by a pioneer saw; more likely by a band saw in a basement. The top is old, mellow, worn and ancient; the back is almost virginal. In purchasing the piece we broke one of Webster’s cardinal rules: “Avoid, at all costs, impulsiveness or excessive enthusiasm in buying.”

His cardinal rules – and much of the book – boil down to buyer beware, look before you leap, and remember it really takes an expert when it comes to figuring out most fakes.

Webster is curator emeritus of the Canadiana department at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and when reading his wide-ranging book one realizes how complicated the antique business is. For example, for a serious antique furniture hunt, Webster recommends taking along inside and outside calipers, magnifying glass, pencil flashlight, tape measure, knife, screwdriver, and pliers. Hard work for furniture detectives and it will get much harder, he warns, as more and more good quality reproduction furniture ages and enters the antique market. (If you wonder what the most-faked piece of Canadiana likely is, look no further than the pine “harvest” table.)

Canfake covers more than furniture, however: There’s silver and pottery (difficult to fake), Canadian painting (not much of a market for forgers), iron (widespread fakery), and scrimshaw (watch out for plastic). The book is an education for the reader, but it is not like a bird guide that helps to identify those confusing fall warblers.

For those who really need expert advice on their next trip to the antique dealer, it would be better to take along Webster himself.