Mod Cons: Know a Fake from an Original

Authentic originals, licensed originals, reproductions and knockoffs—what’s the difference and how can you tell?

Buyer beware, modern love can quickly become original sin. It doesn’t matter if you’re a longtime lover or a blushing neophyte newly turned on to the romance of vintage modern furniture, there are a lot of cheaters out there and if you fall for one of them you could end up both broke and broken-hearted.

Don’t let the object of your affections mislead you. Serious collectors with serious cash can afford to sweep an expensive original piece off the auction floor and out the door. Buyers with demure budgets, who are more concerned about aesthetics than authenticity, may purchase less expensive licensed originals. Reproductions are another consideration, although they raise both ethical and quality concerns.

Authentic Originals

Authentic pieces are about pride of ownership, prestige, and meticulous design and construction. Like god or the devil, authenticity is in the details. But you’ve got to know what details to look for. That’s easier said than done, considering the plethora of pretenders showing up ever since everyone got blinded by dollar signs when a 1948 trestle table by Carlo Mollino sold at Christie’s New York in 2005 for the eye-popping price of $3.824 million. That was nearly twenty times its highest estimate. Now the vintage modern market is overheating. Rigorous research is your best tool to avoid fraudulent furnishings.

“The problem is, there are no experts,” said Frank Rogin, a New York dealer, in an article in The New York Times. He cited a dearth of reliable sources such as catalogues raisonnés, or “reasoned catalogs”. These catalogs are professional monographs that give a comprehensive catalogue of work by a given artist or designer, which usually include: photographs, each piece’s provenance, a list of written sources that discuss the pieces in question, example signatures, the condition of the pieces, a designer profile, a chronicle of disputed claims to authenticity, and a list of each work’s by its current location (city/museum), previous owner(s) and scholarly citations.

It’s only a matter of time before dependable catalogs are published. The serious interest in vintage modern is nascent, with little historical footing. Vintage—as opposed to antique—refers to furniture that has recently crossed over the half-century mark, which is where, broadly speaking, we’re at.

Valuable resources are popping up all over the web. Worthy dealers and auction houses are now policing authenticity more closely. Reputable auction houses that hold mid-century auctions produce useful catalogs and “prices realized” reports, some available online.

A skilled eye can distinguish the authentic from the counterfeit by scrutinizing frame materials, upholstery quality, and construction details such as stitching or the use of stainless steel or polished aluminum instead of chrome. Is the leather painted or aniline-dyed. Is it, in fact, leather? Do the materials used comply with historical documentation? Is there a patina? Does the piece look lived-in? For example, wood shrinks in a direction opposite the grain, the degree determined by softness of the lumber, age, and environment. Age is indicated by include gaps, cracking, a buckling veneer, and legs extending slightly beyond the frame or skirt.

Using the famous Barcelona® chair as a case study, here is an example of what to consider if you’re in the market for an authentic original. At auction, authentic Barcelona® chairs fetch tens of thousands of dollars while licensed originals (see below) are priced at around three or for thousands of dollars and reproductions hover at around one thousand dollars.

Mies van der Rohe created this iconic furniture for the interior of the German Pavilion he designed for the 1929 Barcelona World Arts Fair.

“The chair is a very difficult object. Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that,” Mies said in an interview a year later. “There are endless possibilities and many problems – the chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable. It is almost easier to build a sky scraper than a chair.”

The first Barcelona® chair pre-dated stainless steel and seamless welding. Consequently, the legs were bolted together. The leather was ivory pig skin. Mies re-designed the Barcelona® chair in 1950, using stainless steel to create a frame made from a single piece of metal, replacing the bolts with the smooth lines with which we’re familiar today. Bovine leather replaced pigskin. Be sure to look for Mies van der Rohe’s signature stamp.

Licensed Originals

“What’s valued today is kitsch tomorrow, and then it’s valued again,” says Russell Baker, sitting in his showroom in Vancouver, BC.

He’s the designer and co-owner of Bombast, a manufacturer of original contemporary furniture influenced by—and certainly not mimicking—the best features of vintage modern design. He became a fan of mid-century modern long before it was fashionable, let alone vintage, and has been a passionate researcher and critic for twenty-five years. Like authentic originals, licensed, copyrighted originals tend to appreciate in value over time. Reproductions do not.

“People should check to find out if the piece is produced by the original manufacturer,” says Baker. “Are they [the vendors] asking too little? And always check the seller’s credentials.”

A licensed original is a piece produced by a manufacturer that has been granted legal permission by the designer or designer’s estate to use the original name in conjunction with the original design. This is a topic of much dispute in the design community. Patents and copyrights are murky territory in the arena of vintage modern furniture. Nonetheless, if your piece doesn’t have the legitimate manufacturer’s stamp, it won’t increase in value over time.

Baker points out that one of the problems with copyright is that it eventually runs out. Knoll, which is the authorized manufacturer of the Barcelona® chair, recently responded to the chair’s defunct copyright and set a precedent by trademarking the Barcelona® chair, with some success.

A copyright means you cannot duplicate the design. A trademark means you cannot use the name. Licensed, copyrighted products often carry the designer’s signature and serial number and/or manufacturer’s stamp.

Reproductions and Knockoffs

A few years ago Herman Miller, the authorized copyright licensee for a number of Eames and Noguchi pieces, spearheaded a Get Real campaign to combat fakery. Since 2000, Cassina, the licensed manufacturer of furniture by Le Corbusier among other designers, has produced brochures profiling copycat companies. Licensed manufacturers are not only protecting their investments, they’re also protecting designers’ intellectual properties.

Reproductions pose a profound conundrum. They are the result of licensed product prices that are beyond the budgets of many potential buyers. Although they are counterfeits, reproductions may be unstoppable. (After all, why do people buy generic drugs?) Like Oscar gowns copied off the runway, they are seen by some to democratize design.

That said, there are good reproductions and there are poorly made “knockoffs”, an industry word for designs that have been haphazardly copied and knocked off on a two-bit factory floor. Quality control is non-existent, materials are generally second-rate and design details are frequently compromised. At least quality reproductions acknowledge the original designer. A knockoff steals the design, copies it badly, makes it poorly, and then sells it under an assumed name with nary a tip off the hat to its original inspiration.

Sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference between a well-made reproduction and a licensed original—other than the manufacturer’s stamp and designer’s signature—so it really boils down to a matter of principle and perceived value. Knoll, for example, may be the only licensed manufacturer of the Barcelona® chair, but some of the competition is impressive. Here’s a quick comparison of Knoll’s Barcelona® chair with some of the better reproductions:

Knoll’s Barcelona® chair

Grain-corrected, aniline-dyed Spinneybeck Volo leather; breathable protective finish; leather breaking force of 250 lbs.; stainless steel frame; welded joints; hand polished; hand stitching and piping; 56 colors

Alphaville’s Exposition Lounge Chair – Barcelona Style
Premium full-grain, aniline-dyed leather; breathable protective finish, leather breaking force of 300 lbs.; stainless steel frame; welded joints; hand polished; hand stitching and piping; 17 colors

Steelforms’ Barcelona Chair
Full-grain, non-aniline-dyed leather; breathable protective finish, leather breaking force of 300 lbs.; chrome-plated frame; welded joints; hand polished; hand stitching and piping; 12 colors

The fact that Alphaville’s chair is made in China is cause for caution. If you don’t know where the leather comes from, be wary. Luxury leather from Europe is considered to be the best you can get. Most of it is processed in factories with state-of-the-art environmentally responsible processes. Not in Asia. As well, China’s design and construction standards remain weak. Both Knoll’s and Steelform’s chairs are made in Italy. But note that Steelforms’ chair does not used aniline dyed leather. That’s a mark against it.

These are just a few tips on navigating your way through the obstacle course of vintage modern furniture. The rest is up to you.


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