When talking to people involved either in the Malta property market or in the auctioneering business, one is struck by the fascination with antiques that has gripped the local home-lovers.
When in the mid-60s the laws governing the importation of foreign furniture were revised it seems as if the passion to own antique furniture, pottery, porcelain, silver, glass and metalwork objects was given a boost. The advent of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti (Maltese Heritage Foundation) in January 1992, besides highlighting the islands’ cultural heritage and its welfare, was instrumental in creating an awareness about the joys of possessing antique objects which could boast of an existence beyond that of its owners.
The art of collecting anything really, antique or modern, is limited by two factors; the money available and the space that it would occupy. Having determined these essentials it then becomes a personal matter. The taste of the collector may lead to watches or clocks, teapots, or innumerable other things. The lucky acquisition of an admired piece may lead to a determination to get more of the same, branch out onto other items, or at least to find out what the admiration is all about.
I find the latter operation the most fascinating because, whether we admit it or not, it turns each and every one of us into an amateur Sherlock Holmes. Suddenly we become eager to identify the age of a piece, study the clues that may reveal the actual maker, or at least his nationality, help indicate its comparative rarity and come out with a lucid explanation as to why it is worth having. And I’m sure you agree that when this happens it is bound to enhance life at home.
I was lucky to encounter a furniture connoisseur who advised me as to how to go about telling the old from the new. At the outset he told me that in these matters nothing beats experience. This involves being acquainted with as many genuine pieces as possible. Old homes, museums, exhibitions organised by the likes of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, places where you may be certain of the authenticity of the articles. Gradually the eye and the mind can be trained to recognise whether the appearance of a piece is genuine or not.
Colouring is very important. The ageing of wood alters its colour according to the timber used, and depending on the treatment that it has received over the years. Even the hidden inside parts change with time; if a drawer-lining is scraped it will show at once how the surface has aged. Equally, the old polished outside surfaces mellow with age while re-polishing has the tendency to change the colour of the wood completely.
The real clues however emerge from the construction of the piece. The methods used by carpenters over the ages change from time to time. This is where the expert really comes into his own. He would know how for example, the crude dovetails on the heavy drawer sides were modified in the 17 th century.
Any antique is best scrutinized in a strong light, preferably daylight. That makes it easier to spot any alterations because it is interesting and important, to try to reason as to what has been done and why. Nails and screws also help in gauging the period of the piece. The old do differ markedly from the new. Prior to 1850 they did not taper to a point. Screws were hand-cut and thus the slot in the head was seldom central which of course is not the case with the modern machine-made screws.
The same could be applied to veneering. The old veneers were cut by hand with a saw and are consequently thick. The current machine-driven saws cut the veneers much thinner.
The use of some of the rarer woods implies that an article cost more for materials and probably also for labour which means that it was made to a high standard throughout. The better quality 18 th century pieces were fitted with oak linings to the drawers.
Needless to say practice varied from workshop to workshop and from period to period, but then as the man said, in this business, whatever knowledge you have shall only serve you as a guide. A full answer will always remain well nigh impossible. As far as I am concerned, if I get to the stage where I can detect fakes and reconstructed pieces from the real thing, that will make me a satisfied man, indeed.
Written by Tony Cassar Darien