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FURNISHINGS : Colonial Copycats Get Attention Themselves

September 25, 1993|From Associated Press

Colonial revival furniture is nothing more than copies or adaptations of pre-Civil War American styles, but these bogus antiques have been around for so long that they have been deemed authentic.

It's generally believed that copying started around the time of the American Centennial in 1876. But Robert Trent, curator in charge of furniture at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del., says the Colonial period was barely over before the practice of reproducing its furniture began.

A New York cabinetmaker named Smith Ely, working between 1827 and 1832, made what is believed to be the first colonial revival piece. The cane-back armchair owned by the Wyllys family of Hartford, Conn., was acquired by Winterthur in 1987.

"Traditionally, colonial revival furniture has been regarded by museums as an embarrassment," Trent says. "They acquired it, but only to teach students how to spot fakes."

However, a new generation of scholars sees things differently. Some of the early pieces are now considered as worthy of attention as the originals.

Ernest Hagen, for example, specialized in Duncan Phyfe federal furniture. He made copies to fill out original sets or for clients who wanted the look but not the expense of antiques. Hagen opened a New York shop in 1858 with a partner and by 1890 was regarded as an authority on Phyfe. An exhibition this year at the Museum of the City of New York was devoted to Hagen, who has been credited with reviving Phyfe's reputation in the 19th Century.

The Nathan Margolis Shop of Hartford, Conn., had an unusually long run of 91 years. Margolis, a Lithuanian, opened shop in 1893 and became known in New England for faithful copies and excellent execution, especially of originals by Eliphalet Chapin, an 18th-Century Connecticut cabinetmaker. Margolis' son, Harold, continued the firm until 1984, expanding on his father's reputation.

In addition to faithful reproductions, Margolis adapted colonial style furniture to modern needs. In the 1950s, for example, he bowed to the popularity of the double dresser--a style unknown in Colonial times--by doubling the width and lowering the height of the traditional Connecticut chest of drawers.

Adaptations are just as prevalent today--think of colonial-style TV and stereo cabinets--but there's more interest in conforming to the originals.

"There's a strong antiquarian bias and a more comprehensive understanding of the original Colonial pieces," Trent says. "Earlier makers jumbled details in ways thought to be funny today."

Windsor chairs by Wallace Nutting, a collector of Colonial furniture in Framingham, Mass., are a good example. In the 1920s and 1930s, he hired cabinetmakers to turn out reproductions, which he marketed aggressively through catalogues and advertising. The chairs contained elements taken from a variety of styles.

They were made in woods that would never have been used for the originals, and their shellac finish was historically inaccurate. Consumers liked them, nonetheless, and other furniture makers started copying them.

"The motivations of most of these copyists was to provide a service for extremely wealthy people who wanted custom furniture of a particular type and weren't satisfied with production furniture or modern styles," Trent says. "Firms today that provide the same kind of service are making the antiques of tomorrow."

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