Above interior by Christopher Kennedy
If you’re a fan of mid-century modern furniture, lighting and other 20th-century design, Sotheby’s Home is the place for you. Navigating antiques shops, vintage stores and flea markets can be challenging. That’s why, in a marketplace flooded with unlicensed reproductions and downright fakes, our specialists do all the legwork for you. Here are some of our experts’ best tips to help ensure that you get what you pay for.
Once you’ve brushed up on how to authentically identify your next Mid-Mod marvel, check out the current selection of expertly-vetted Mid-Century Modern pieces currently available on Sotheby’s Home.
What’s the best way to identify an authentic 20th-century design?
Study the quality of materials, overall construction and any paper labels or stickers under seat cushions and tabletops. This is especially important when considering companies like Knoll, Artek and Thonet that have been producing their iconic furniture continuously since the time they were first designed.
Featured above: Eero Saarinen Executive Side Chairs
Do some makers offer reissues of their most popular pieces?
Yes, Herman Miller has reissued many styles from their original catalogues. They consider things like auction records for vintage materials to help determine the public’s current appetite.
How can shoppers distinguish mid-century furniture from well-executed reproductions?
There’s not a huge difference in price between a genuine vintage piece and a licensed reproduction from Herman Miller or Knoll. Happily, American mid-century design is still relatively affordable.
What exactly are licensed reproductions?
Licensed reproductions typically are offered by companies that legitimately acquire the rights to reproduce vintage designs and are paying royalties to the families and companies of the original designers. A good example is Vitra, which payed for exclusive Prouvé licensing and is now reproducing those chairs. Licensed reproductions can vary widely from the originals when different colors and metals are used, but most well-executed licensed repros will adhere to the correct dimensions and construction, in the spirit of the original.
Is it actually illegal to sell unlicensed reproductions and replicas?
Not really. Because furniture is not covered under U.S. copyright law, it’s technically not illegal to make an Eames-style lounge chair, for example; but only Herman Miller (U.S.) and Vitra (Europe) are the authorized reproducers for Eames.
What makes a knockoff a straight-up fake?
Sub-standard knockoffs are often manufactured overseas with inferior materials and sell for a third or even a quarter of the price of a licensed reproduction or a true vintage piece. If it’s easy to replicate, fakes are being made. In the case of wood furniture, someone will get their hands on an original, make a template and reproduce chairs and other furniture using cagey aging methods like chain-hitting the legs, carving wormholes, etc. Unsavory individuals specialize in these fake-aging techniques, so it can be challenging for mid-century furniture collectors and enthusiasts to discern.
How can shoppers safeguard themselves?
The best way to avoid fakes is to review any stickers, labels and receipts, take measurements and look closely at materials and construction. Don’t be afraid to lift up seat cushions and look under a sofa, chair, table or lamp. Next, get out your tape measure because replicas and unlicensed reproductions often have different measurements from originals and licensed reproductions. Then examine the fabric and other materials for quality. If a sofa, table, chair or light is being sold cheaper than a licensed reproduction, the materials will likely indicate that. Even small but important details—like the tapered edge of an authentic Saarinen marble tabletop—can help distinguish the real McCoy. Finally, and most important, inspect the connection points—where the tabletop attaches to the base, for example. Whether buying online or in person, study photos of authentic pieces and compare them to the piece you’re considering. In the case of an Eames lounge chair, the original piece isn’t meant to recline because it’s stationary and already reclined. Some obvious fakes sport a ratcheted back.
Featured above: Milo Baughman Four-Seat Sofa
What does “in the style of” mean?
Sotheby’s Home accepts only limited “in the style of” contemporary reproduction consignments. For example, if we have someone designing around the same time as the iconic Milo Baughman, and if the work has a feel similar to Baughman and it’s from the same period, that is a legitimate “in the style of” piece. In this case, we recognize that someone like Baughman or Ward Bennett was an influential, celebrated designer who created a movement. In fact, they created a lot of style interest for other designers. At Sotheby’s Home, we limit “in the style of” offerings out of respect for true period-influenced pieces. However, an individual or company that brazenly copies an authentic piece and mass produces it today is not creating an “in the style of”’ piece—they are marketing a fake.
What’s your advice for those who crave mid-century modern décor but are on a budget?
Rather than buying a fake, look for affordable, no-name, mid-century pieces that have the same classic lines or materials or style. Or consider nice contemporary pieces that manage to evoke the aura of an era without being so explicit in knocking off someone else’s innovation.
Top 5 Tips for Snagging a Mid-Mod Original
1. Beware of cheaply priced “vintage originals” selling for much less than authenticated works by Eames, Breuer, Le Corbusier, Perriand, Jeanneret, Gray, Prouvé, Van der Rohe, the Castiglionis and Noguchi.
2. Closely examine the quality of materials, overall construction and any labels under seat cushions and tabletops.
3. Use a tape measure. Most licensed reproductions will adhere to original dimensions and construction.
4. Look closely at all connection points and compare with photos of authentic mid-century pieces.
5. On a budget? Find affordable, no-name, mid-century pieces with classic lines and quality materials. Refuse unlicensed knockoffs.