Documentation; Authenticating Mid Century Modern Design

Max Ingrand Fontana Arte Chandelier

In the Style of
Attributed to
By or Documented

What does it all mean and why is it important to you?

You’re considering buying an important piece of furniture, lighting, or decorative object.

You’re going to pay a premium for a genuine work by an important maker. Good documentation is your insurance policy that your purchase is the real thing. If you are buying with an eye towards investment scrupulous documentation is essential.

Words like, in the style of, and attributed to, are descriptors that indicate that the seller has no real documentation that an article is genuine. It is based on the dealer’s opinion and experience. Historically if a work was described in the style of or attributed to, there was sufficient reason to say so. Experts used construction detail, design elements and experience knowing the hand of the maker, to decide whether an attribution was possible.

In the style of is purely opinion. It can indicate the design of something that reminds one of the work of someone else but it is nothing more. We see things described as in the style of, or attributed to regularly but these descriptors can often make no sense.

Years ago..while watching a friend scrolling through pages of online antiques she would remark incredulously, “Attributed to Gio who?” “Eames?? My Eye!”. It was clear to us then, that people would say anything to sell things. To quote PT Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute!”

Authenticity is defined by documentation. Documentation is the professional method used to clarify whether something is a look-a-like, wanna-be, fake or the genuine article. How can you, the collector, sort through this maze of information? How can I, the dealer, do the same?

Documentation is a rigorous process and one that has rules. By (insert name) is a declaration that the item is by the designer or maker or company. Use of that term should come with clear compelling documentation. What constitutes documentation?

Max Ingrand Fontana Arte Chandelier
Chandelier by Max Ingrand for Fontana Arte.
Italy, c. 1955
Asymmetric glass diffuser with six panels hand carved by Dube. Model number 1748
15.5″ High, 22″ Diameter reference number GDL-031

I asked an old friend, a well known antiques dealer, whose specialty is  American Antiques,  for his definition of Documentation. David Schorsch is an outstanding 2nd generation American Antiques Dealer who has built important private collections and who works with the most important museums. He is at the top of his field, well regarded by his peers. What David says constitutes real documentation, aligns with my own principals for the documentation of Period Modern Design.

David, I said, what constitutes documentation. Here is his reply;

“In answer to your question, in my opinion documented pieces fall into these categories:

1) signed or otherwise labeled works.

2) examples with original paperwork such as a bill of sale from the maker, or period correspondence from the maker to the buyer, a journal entry or probate record of the original owner that identifies the maker or artist, or a strong provenance linking an original owner to a particular maker.

3) pieces that might correspond to an original maker’s catalogs with engraved representations for things like weathervanes, cast iron garden furniture, statuary, trade figures, barber poles, etc,  or occasionally period advertisements with the same type of imagery by some early to mid 19th century artisans and companies.

4) pieces that exactly match others that correspond to 1-3.

5) pieces that through methodological study of examples that correspond to 1-3 can be strongly attributed based on distinguishing aspects of design, use of materials, and specific kinds of construction.”

When we document a piece of 20th century furniture we follow David’s description verbatim.

Cabinet by Paolo BuffaItaly, 1947Six door cabinet in oak by Paolo Buffa. Brass hardware.Branded mark, “ESPOSIZIONE PERMANENTE MOBILI CANTU”Documented in L'Arredamento Moderno, Terza Serie Seconda Edizione by Roberto Aloi, plate 304; Il Mibile Italiano Degli Anni '40 e '50 by Guttry / Maino, page 11756.5" H, 74.5" W, 16" DReference number GDF-057
Cabinet by Paolo BuffaItaly, 1947Six door cabinet in oak by Paolo Buffa. Brass hardware.Branded mark, “ESPOSIZIONE PERMANENTE MOBILI CANTU”Documented in L’Arredamento Moderno, Terza Serie Seconda Edizione by Roberto Aloi, plate 304; Il Mibile Italiano Degli Anni ’40 e ’50 by Guttry / Maino, page 11756.5″ H, 74.5″ W, 16″ DReference number GDF-057

If we have an original catalog we peer closely at the images and make sure that every aspect of our example identically matches that which is pictured. If It does not, we use our experience and knowledge as well as that of other trustworthy dealer/scholars to consider the deviations we have noticed and determine whether they make sense or not, from the point of view of knowing a company’s output.

Here is an example of the thinking process that goes into determining if a work is genuine;

Recently a rare light fixture by a company I have studied, sold at public auction. I had already seen that same model in Europe, a few months earlier. Given the rarity of the form, it was quite possible that the identical fixture I saw in Europe came to be sold at auction. Shortly after the sale, two more of that same model were being offered for sale. I was surprised to see another pair of the same model, which to my knowledge had rarely if ever come up for sale in the past 15 years.

I compared the pictures in the auction catalog, along with those of the two pieces offered. On first glance they looked exactly the same. But on closer inspection, subtle and not so subtle differences began to emerge. The glass shades on the two were not so precisely fitted, to the frame, as were those in the auction catalog. Also the shades of the auctioned light were solid white the ones being offered had shades that were white with a clear edge. The canopy, which covers the junction box at the ceiling was also different. Had I been thinking to buy one or both of the lights being offered,I was already entertaining some concerns. Further investigation was necessary. If documentation by original company catalogs pictures or period publications showed these differences I would then have had proof that these variations were just that. However if these differences could not be proved to be variations in production, by published information I would continue to be skeptical.

Anyone can be fooled. In 1977 The Henry Ford Museum  discovered a pilgrim chair in its collection that was not old. It was a big story in the trade papers and eventually was reported by The New York Times. The chair was moved out of its prominent place to a study section and labeled for what it was, a fake.

Documenting something is a little bit of sleuthing, some discovery, study, sometimes schmoozing with a fellow dealer, collector, curator or auction professional. It requires skepticism and critical thinking. It’s work that requires constant learning and re-learning. New facts emerge, old ideas hold or are sometimes supplanted by new information. When documenting something we look at it and ask questions, “What is this?” “How do I know that?” “Is it in its original state?” What may have happened to it?” “Is my determination provable?” It requires a keen eye, patience and a willingness to face the truth. I love doing the research and I love buying and selling documented design.