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Antique Boxes in English Society
1760 -1900




This article is still in preparation. Ilustrations will be added soon. The number of emails I am receiving have made this topic urgent.


Alarmed by the large number of letters and emails I get asking me to appraise boxes which are not what the owners thought they were, I am giving a few warning observations.

Fakers are very clever and skilled people and they always seem to be one step ahead. I would be grateful for any information of fake features, which I have not yet noticed, so that they can be added to this article.

Most antique boxes are the product of days, weeks or even months of skilled work and as such not financially viable to reproduce, even if the skills to do so could be revived and the materials found. Lacquer, sadeli mosaic, Tunbridge ware, penwork, intricate inlay in mother of pearl, wood and brass as well as other fine and complex work represented in boxes cannot be made now for the price of the antique equivalent.

One exception to this is the Tea Caddy. The buoyant collector's market of the last two decades has made it possible for reproductions and fakes to find an easy market.

The caddies which are reproduced in great numbers are the ones which bring high dividends for the work involved.

Unfortunately buying from vetted antique fairs or established dealers is not always a guarantee of authenticity. A reproduction exotic fruit caddy has recently made its way up very high echelons pretending to be the real thing. Even fifteen years ago, at a most prestigious vetted event, I opened an aubergine shaped caddy and was knocked back by the smell of wood stain emanating from the inside. Water based stain would not have left a smell although the stain would still  look artificial. Al the senses should be used.

There is nothing wrong in buying honest reproductions as these are on the whole pretty boxes with a period flavour. What is wrong is overpaying for a box, which is not genuine. This can make a difference of hundreds or even thousands. It is also wrong to buy things which are misrepresented. Reproductions should be clearly labelled as such: "in the style of" or "copy".

The obvious first candidates for reproductions are the fruit shaped caddies. As I said in my article on Tea Caddies, even the best earliest examples are crude and were relatively easy to make. These caddies were first made in the 18th century and they continued to be made up to the beginning of the 20th century. After that there was a gap of several decades before the prices of the original ones hit the roof and woke up the fakers to the possibilities of easy profits.

In all fairness the new examples are not aesthetically much different from the 19th and early 20th century examples which frequently sell for thousands. After all one can argue that fruit caddies are a continuing tradition. However what has gone wrong is the fuzziness of description and the attempt at uniformity of price.

In my opinion the only fruit caddies worth paying thousands for, are the earliest ones with absolutely wonderful patination. You must get at least a couple of hundred years of care lavished on the fruit caddy to be worth paying so much for it. If the patination is not there, a few hundred is more than adequate for a pretty box of instant appeal and not much else going for it. Even a 19th century example in most cases is not much different from a recent one.

There are many more fruit caddies on the market now which are not eighteenth century; and the number is growing.

Watch for wood stain inside. If the caddy is lined in artificially "aged" lead or new lead try to peel a little off and see if the wood looks brand new. If someone has over cleaned the inside of an old caddy detection is tricky. Look at the outside: is it patinated correctly? If not leave well alone unless the price matches the status of the caddy and you do not mind a new example.

The second candidate for reproduction is the 18th century small caddy. There is a proliferation of these doing the rounds in all sorts of shapes: square, oblong, octagonal, oval etc. Some are very good indeed and I know of more than one experienced collector and dealer who fell for them. I am going to give some "check points" as alarmingly these have even appeared in prestigious auction rooms and vetted fairs.

Original caddies when opened should have traces of the old lead lining or old "lead" paper. If they have been cleaned the wood should be without artificial stain. Unfortunately with hard woods like mahogany and even oak, it is difficult to see the difference. It is easier with pine where little age dents and scratches are more obvious.

The inside of the fake caddies is mostly stained or lined in new lead, sometimes with attempted artificial ageing. This however cannot be the only test, as the inside of 18th century caddies was sometimes relined with a silvered paper or lead in the 19th and early 20th century. Even today sometimes caddies get relined. However, even though relining cannot be the ultimate proof, it should ring alarm bells for checking other points.

The locks on a large number of recent reproduction caddies look superficially correct, but in most cases the mechanism inside is missing and was never there in the first place. Sometimes even the rod for the key is there but the rest of the works are missing. Look at the key hole. Does it have the expected ware and colour for 200 years? Again this not a 100% test but another important alarm bell.

The following criteria are more subtle and need a more experienced eye and touch but once you recognise a few fakes you should be able to spot them pretty fast.

The woods used are usually not consistent with the woods used on the early caddies. For example thin knife cut veneers are used instead of the early thick veneers. Try to turn the box upside down and try to judge the thickness of the veneer if the caddy is not "faced".

Study the woods used at different periods. There are a few overlaps, but if the wood is not consistent, look again. For example, burr walnut (desirable now) with bold swirls was used from the second quarter of the 19th century. An 18th century caddy made of this wood should be eyed with suspicion. Very "raw" looking mahogany or light coloured wood such as satinwood should again ring alarm bells. Original mahogany ages and patinates to a subtle glow. Light coloured woods patinate to a soft golden colour.

Most of the fake caddies are either covered in interesting woods or inlaid in the manner of the 18th century. The inlays look wrong to an experienced eye, but not so wrong to people not so used to handling early pieces. What you must look for is raw lines where the inlay meets the rest of the caddy. On the original caddies one expects little undulations and lines of hardened glue and wax when running one's hand or eye over the surface. This is because the different woods which were used in the inlay have shrunk and swelled differently over the years. On the new caddies the woods are flat and nothing has built up around the inlay. The inlays, which are often made up of thin veneers look quite "dead" and flat.

Look at the caddy from different directions holding it in your hand. Look how the light catches the "age" features. Feel it with your fingertips. Notice the unevenness. There should be slight variations in sheen values, minute cracks and indentations. If the caddy is genuine, it should feel and look as if it has aged organically rather than it has just been manufactured.

Stylistically the inlays are sometimes quite wrong and easy to spot, although this is not always the case. For example I have seen an inlay of snow drops in very late sentimental Victorian style on a caddy pretending to be 18th century. Another give away is floral inlays of the type used on 20th century jewelry boxes.

However fakers are getting clever and some designs are direct copies and thus more difficult to detect. Look out for stained woods, especially green. Unlike the early green this is flat, uniform and glaringly wrong. Look for fine penwork lines or incisions defining details on the inlay. On the old caddies this is a frequent feature. Incision lines on new caddies are rare and when there they often look raw.

In old caddies even if there are several motifs making up the inlay, the design has aged to a harmonious whole with colours mellowing pleasingly. In the reproduction versions the various designs jar. Look at the box: does it present a coherent whole?

Finally is the caddy well and truly patinated as it should be after two hundred years? If not leave it alone, unless the price is right and you do not mind a nice copy.

Not every caddy has all the tell tale signs but usually something or other gives it away. Before you buy look and let your instinct take over. Does the caddy look as if it has history? Has it been handled for two hundred years?

The most audacious fakes are made by printing designs copied from early caddies and then varnishing over the surface. Fortunately these are not very common and should be easy to spot. Basically if it is plastered in varnish, be weary.

Before I discuss the next group I would like to say a word about one type of deception practised, mainly out of ignorance. These are not fakes as such but misrepresentations. Triple, or even double tea caddies often contain removable canisters. These canisters are sometimes oval octagonal or other interesting shapes. Occasionally the odd canister survives separated from the container caddy. Found by inexperienced collectors or dealers these are thought to be caddies. The hinging on these and the way the top closes flat is quite different from the structure of complete tea caddies. Look at the illustrated examples. It is not difficult to get it right.

The next group of expensive reproductions are the tortoiseshell and ivory caddies.

The easiest to spot reproductions from this group are the "piano key" caddies. These are ivory caddies some oval, some approaching correct ivory caddy shapes made out of old piano keys. Do not buy anything with panels of this dimension, unless of course you buy it as an honest new item for the right amount. It should be noted that the panels on the original caddies are wider, so piano key ivory cannot even make an accurate reproduction.

Original ivory caddies have very fine hinges, locks and other hardware. Check these.

The lids inside original caddies are often of plain wood. This is correct.

Because of the way ivory was cut hairline cracks are unavoidable in early ivory caddies.

The tortoiseshell, silver or gold lines are fine and thin on the original caddies.

Finally very few shapes were made. Look at the proportions; do they look right? Look at the general article on ivory caddies and their shapes.

Tortoiseshell fakes are rife. Some are not even shell but an excellent looking plastic substitute. A hot pin will penetrate this. Watch out for old wooden caddies covered in this material.

Tortoiseshell caddies are difficult boxes to judge as a knowledge of the correct shapes is much more complex. The early ones in blond or green shell are easier in that the shapes of the originals are restrained and very well proportioned. The fakes of these often have quite thick lines of ivory which looks wrong, or try to be more complex than the real thing.

When it comes to later caddies unless they have features which would be time consuming and expensive to reproduce it is very difficult to judge. Again look at the hardware. The original hardware was not as fine as on the ivory caddies, but was quite fine. Look at the shape, the escutcheon, the metal or ivory lines. Do they look right? Are they fine enough?

Another feature which an experienced eye can detect is the colour. Tortoiseshell caddies were veneered on a bed of gesso. The genuine articles often show subtle signs of fading where the shell is not so tightly attached, the corners, near the hinges etc. These of course could disappear with good restoration. However if the caddy looks over glossed and has no tell tale marks of age, look at it very critically. Is it restored or made up of new shell? Sometimes if you look at enough examples you begin to distinguish the difference instinctively.

Other fake candidates are rolled paper caddies. Look out for new or re sprayed papers. Fakes of these caddies are fortunately not as wide spread as the wooden and tortoiseshell boxes. There was a spate of them in England a few years ago.

Larger caddies with removable canisters, Chinese, penwork, sadeli mosaic, papier mache, mother of pearl inlaid and generally caddies which would be very labour intensive to reproduce are to my knowledge quite safe to buy.

A few carved caddies in "Chippendale" style have appeared on the market but as far as I know nobody has tried to market these as genuine. These are made of very low quality, often stained mahogany. The carving is crude, usually representing foliage. These boxes look very "raw" and crude. They have the characteristics of fast and careless manufacture done for a price.

There is occasionally the odd attempt at Tunbridge ware of the mosaic type on all types of boxes, not just caddies. These experiments are short lived, presumably because they are not financially worth while. However these reproductions are so different from the real thing that I do not think many people would fall for them. Using much fewer woods for the inlays than on the originals, the resulting pictures have no depth or vitality.



What has made it difficult in the last two or so decades to enjoy antique boxes in their original condition is the crass restoration carried out on 18th century boxes which has blurred the line between reproductions and genuine articles. When bringing this up with dealers who treated boxes in this way, I was told that this is how "customers liked them". I find this wanton destruction of heritage by people who should be custodians of antiques irresponsible. Surely part of the dealer's duty is to explain. The only remedy is to refuse to sell to such people as I have done in the past.

Many an early box has had the undulations resulting from the use of early thick veneers sanded down and varnished to a super gloss, killing its character and patina stone dead. The word pristine which should mean original good condition has been used to describe boxes which have had a surface lift. Refinishing 18th and early 19th century boxes is an anathema not a virtue.

Antiques are precious precisely because they are antique and should look as if generations have taken care of them, not as if they have just arrived from the high street. The 18th century patrons who commissioned these boxes were perfectly aware of the "antique" and would be horrified at the thought that their much loved objects are not allowed to retain the patina and character they have built up over the years.

Please if you do feel that your decor looks best with new looking objects, buy the reproductions. They are on the whole well crafted and very pretty. You should also be able to buy them cheaper. Do not demand that old boxes be refinished. There are precious few antique boxes left which have not been robbed of the charm of their age. Allow the people who appreciate antique boxes to find them patinated.

Fortunately the tide of "conservation", which has been museum policy for sometime, rather than "restoration" with refinishing, is now beginning to filter down and influence attitudes in the antique trade and general buyers. To the relief of connoisseurs the rate of the murder of the real antique box is slowing down.

  1999 Antigone Clarke and Joseph O'Kelly