When it comes to buying antiques, some travelers are finding that certain items bought abroad are not as genuine or venerable as described by vendors.
The distinction is particularly important as far as the Customs Service goes, as you can bring items in duty-free if they are at least 100 years old. If objects are ethnographic and made in the traditional aboriginal style (masks are an example), they have to be at least 50 years old to be duty-free.
One of the ruses used, often with wooden objects, is to take separate components that may be genuinely old and then marry or reconstruct these elements into a new combination passed off as an antique.
Some of these hybrid or cannibalized objects may be beautifully done and valuable in their own right, but still not be antiques.
"Instant aging," utilizing various techniques, is used with a variety of objects, including porcelain, ceramics, carvings, maps and documents.
"Distressing" is one of the methods used to make an item appear older. A chain or other blunt object might be used to create nicks and pock marks, with lacquer or stain then applied. Sandpaper and steel wool, followed by refinishing, have also been used to suggest age.
Stones are sometimes dyed. One technique is to coat a bone horn with white plaster, dip it in paint to give it a brownish tint and a grained effect, stain it--and then pass it off as ivory.
Ceramics might be purposefully broken and then put together again. The bottoms of porcelain or pottery pieces have been roughed up, and some items have been buried in the ground for a while to give them an older appearance.
Documents, such as maps and letters, can also be doctored. One method is to spray the item with a light solution of coffee. The moisture can create wrinkles in the paper as well as a brownish patina.
New mirrors have had some of their silvering removed, enabling one to see partially through them like ordinary glass, making them seem older. Acid has been used to age metal articles.
One obvious solution is to buy only at reputable stores and get receipts and statements attesting to the approximate age of the object. It's up to the traveler to establish such authenticity. Dealers abroad, of course, may say something is an antique unaware of the cutoff point applied by customs.
"In many cases travelers simply don't have justifying documentation," said Jan Frank, a senior import specialist for U.S. Customs in Los Angeles.
In most situations, as long as the item is for personal and not commercial use and there is no evidence of fraud, customs will simply assess duty on the item. You can, of course, protest assessment of such duty and petition for a review. Customs has a local laboratory where items can be tested. Museum consultants may also be used for certain objects.
Learn Before You Buy
Another precaution is to learn more about antiques before travel, particularly in terms of styles and periods. Becoming an instant collector has its perils. "They were making reproductions even in the 18th-Century," said Steve German, general manager of the Antique Guild in Los Angeles.
Another possibility is to go to antique stores before your travels, looking at older and newer items and learning more about the differences.
"While there are some tell-tale signs with some items, this isn't an exact science and there's always a certain amount of risk and judgment involved," German said.
To illustrate, just because something is handmade doesn't necessarily lend weight to its being an antique. Conversely, an item can be machine-made (remember that the Industrial Revolution took place more than 100 years ago) and still be an antique.
With porcelain, look at the bottom of the piece to see if it might have been sanded or otherwise ground down. Older pieces will tend to be gray and translucent, with newer ones more opaque and whitish, advised Laura Denny, another senior import specialist with the Customs Service.
Spotting falsely aged items can be harder with wood because wood, unlike some other materials like metals and crystal, is constantly aging, German said. "Look at any carved appointments. If they're all carved identically, that suggests a machine process. If hand-carved, while similar, there would probably be differences. Check where drawers fit into grooves. This area should show more wear, and if the work wasn't done in a straight line, it's more likely to be handmade."
Color and Shrinkage
Similarly, German advised travelers to take a close look at the patina. "The color of wood changes. Therefore, a table top might be more discolored than its leaves due to more use or exposure to light."
Wood shrinks, German said, so be on the lookout for unstained areas where the wood has come out a bit from the frame it was fitted into. Frames of paintings and other wood objects have had fake worm holes put in them. "Beetles eat directly into wood, not along the surface, so if you see a pattern or running groove the holes are probably more contemporary."