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How to Identify Antiques

How To Spot Fake Antiques

2nd March 2018

Antique Shop London

As with many things in life, if it’s a good fake, it fools everyone. So, when it comes to spotting fake antiques, you’re going to need more than just good instincts – though they will help!

Knowledge is king. The more you know about antiques, the better. So we’ve put together a handy checklist, to help you identify the real from the reproductions. We have broken it down into the most popular antique categories, pointing out some specifics on what to look out for and what to equip yourself with. After all, The devil is in the detail.

But first, what is an antique? There is much dispute over the details of what classifies something as an antique, however in its most basic definition, it is something over 100 years old. So anything which dates prior to 1900, is definitely an antique. When is doubt, ask. Sounds obvious, I know, but the dealer should be honest as to whether it is a replica, a restored antique or the real deal- all three are valuable in their own rights, as long as sold as such. Though remember great fakes can even fool the masters, which is why we’re encouraging you to do a little of your own detecting.

Okay Sherlock. Let’s get to work!

Wooden Furniture

Antique Dovetail Joint

Based on the type of wood used, you can normally decipher the age of the furniture, and thus whether it’s an antique.

  • Furniture made from oak, walnut, mahogany, cherry, and maple, can date back from as early as the 17th century; So if you come across one of these, it has a good chance of being an antique.
  • On the other hand, plywood or particle board were not used in furniture making until the 1930s, so steer clear of furniture made from these woods.
  • If something has been built using a mixture of different woods, it’s a good sign that it’s an antique: Less visible parts of the furniture, such as the back of draws, were often made of a cheaper wood than the rest of the piece, such as pine wood, because it was easier and cheaper to get hold of.

What it’s made of is only one piece of the puzzle. The way something is constructed is also a good indicator of era.

  • Generally antiques are hand sanded, giving a slightly rougher finish. Run your hands along any exposed surfaces and if it’s too smooth, then it’s probably been machine sanded.
  • The wider and less delicate the dovetail, the older the piece: Back in the day, craftsmen used hand-cut mortise-and-tenon joints, dovetail joints and wooden pegs. Once machines were introduced in the mid-19th century, joints became neater and more consistent.
  • Screws were handmade until about 1880, when machines took over. The tell tale signs of a handmade screw are: little or no taper, misaligned slot on the head and a much shallower spiral.
  • If furniture is extensively glued together, as opposed to using joints, then it’s probably a reproduction.
  • Round nails were not introduced until about 1900, before which they were square cut. And look out for staples, which came into play about the same time.
  • The thicker the veneer, the older the piece, thus reproductions will be paper thin: Veneers were cut by hand well into the 1800s, making them lovely and thick, but as always the introduction of more modern mechanisms saw them decrease in thickness.

As well as the specifics of how a piece was manufactured, the general look and feel of the wood also plays a huge part. It’s also important to consider how the piece has aged.

  • Imperfections in the wood, made from different tools, indicate an antique; Anything machine cut, thus with a smooth and even finish, indicates that it’s not: Wood was cut and worked on by hand up until the 1830s, often leaving individual stroked and glitches. Post 1830s saw mills were introduced which left straighter, more even lines, but marks none the less.
  • Wonky wood and cracks in the furniture are all good signs of an antique: Wood shrinks with age across the grain, but not along it, resulting in misshapen furniture, and splits or cracks where door panels or bottoms of draws shrink faster than their supporting frames.
  • Wood also darkens with age and exposure, so the edges of panels, which have been recently revealed because of shrinking wood, will be lighter. Check they haven’t varnished parts to make them look darker by giving it a sniff!
  • An antique table will be sure to have some wear and tear, along the under edges, where greasy fingers have lingered: Take a torch and look underneath the tabletop (or flip it if it’s small enough) to check for finger marks.

When trying to establish whether something is an antique, a black light is very useful. Make sure you keep one handy, as you’ll see its use pop up a lot over the next few categories.


Saint-Cloud manufactory soft porcelain bowl, with blue decoration under glaze, 1700–1710.

Porcelain Saint Cloud Bowl

How and from what porcelain is made, helps us indicate its age.

  • Hard paste porcelain began being manufactured at the start of the 18th century by the europeans, after they tried to replicate soft paste which the chinese had been labouring over for years. Thus hard paste characterises more modern porcelain. Under black light, hard paste porcelain, which is characterised by its white bright finish after firing, will fluoresce a deep blue or purple. Soft paste porcelain, being more delicate requires a glaze and so will glow white.
  • Using a pin, you can determine whether the porcelain is restored or fired, by the way it glides, or doesn’t, over the surface; Fired porcelain, being hard like glass, will allow the pin to float across the surface smoothly, whereas restored porcelaine will feel soft to the touch.

If a piece is too heavily restored, it is no longer an antique, which is often the case with porcelaine. Being so fragile, the older it is, the more risk it runs at having been broken. Try these tricks to help determine whether repairs have been made:

  • Repair jobs, which are not always visible to the open eye, can be exposed using a black light, as it will make the glue fluoresce.
  • Running your tongue or lips along the surface, can help determine whether something has been restored or remade; If there is a difference in materials used, you will detect the subtle difference in temperature or texture. Forget not being allowed to lick the plate clean!


Salvator Mundi Painting

People are happy to part hands with huge sums of money when it comes to art, especially antique art. Just yesterday, ‘Salvator Mundi,’ a painting believed to be Leonardo da Vinci’s and painted in 1509, sold for a record breaking $450m at Christie’s in New York. However there is still some controversy over its authenticity. One critic said about it, that it looked “inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old”

This only goes to show the difficulty in deciphering a genuine antique painting, and the huge incentive for someone to try their hand at faking it. Paintings often get restored or touched up, and as I said earlier, though a good repair can add value to an object, a bad one can seriously devalue it. Using a black light can help you make your mind up:

Modern paint will fluoresce under black light. So if the whole thing lights up when you shine on it, it’s a sure sign of a reproduction.

Using the same technique, touch ups and painted repairs will be obvious to spot using a black light.


Material is what tells the story of time in this category, so work out what it’s made from.

  • Polyester and rayon will florence under a blacklight. Synthetics such as these, weren’t in use until the 1920s, so any objects which use these, are definitely not antiques.
  • Antique upholstery, prior to the 1920s, used natural stuffing such as horse hair and hay. Pushing your finger gently into the cushioned area, it should feel bristly and not spring back to its original position. There may even be some bristles poking through the material.
  • If you find a mix of old and new materials, it’s a sign that it’s been repaired.


Vaseline glass image provided by:

Antique Vaseline Glass

The first thing to do with glass is check the bottom and sides to see if it’s marked -you may need to use a magnifying glass. If you find a mark, check it against a glassmaker marks book, or do an internet search to determine the manufacturer and thus its age. If it’s not, use these techniques to tell you:

  • Colourless pressed glass made prior to the 1930s will fluoresce yellow, as will old burmese glass, however a reproduction won’t.
  • Depression and vaseline glass will glow a greenish colour under a black light, due to the uranium oxide.
  • Antique glass usually has a mottled effect; When you look at it from an angle, it doesn’t look smooth and flat.
  • Cut glass is much more valuable than pressed glass, which often signifies a reproduction. Run your thumb along the decoration and if it feels sharp to the touch, then it’s cut glass. Pressed glass has a smoother finish.

As a general rule, real antiques will show signs of WEAR AND TEAR, in places where they would have come into contact with another surface or a human over the years of their existence. Fraudsters will go to great lengths to try and fool you, even beating furniture with a chain, but the inconsistency and extent of the marking normally tell the truth about age. After all, we all get wrinkles in the end. A lot of detecting antiques will come down to knowing your facts, putting these practises into play and using your instincts.

Good luck Sherlock.

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