How to learn? Buy a fake!

The question is often asked by would-be collectors of antiques: ``But how do I learn?'' ``By experience,'' is the maddening reply. There just is not an easy answer, nor is experience an easy school. Collectors who prefer to use the experience of an expert, and pay for it, should read no further.

The needy -- and the courageous -- should proceed to the next question. ``Where do I begin?''

The answer? ``Buy a fake!'' You will not, of course, do this intentionally. If you have been buying antiques for some time and are confident that you have done no such thing, then it is time you did. Nothing sharpens the wits so effectively as to discover that there is more to antiques than meets the eye. Money lost on a fake can be put down to experience and, providing you were not too rash and you do not do it too often, it is money well spent.

More conventional and generally recommended methods of learning are, of course, desirable. Reading well illustrated textbooks and visiting museums are good beginnings. You have to know what things should look like and understand the progression of styles.

Any field of collecting, where prices justify the effort involved, attracts the attention of fakers and forgers. And the difference between the two? A fake is a piece that, although of the period, has been altered or adapted to enhance its value, whereas a forgery is a later copy intended to deceive.

Some writers share their experience and show the ways of detecting these evil machinations and, incidentally, blow the mystique that surrounds the expert. It certainly helps to know where to look and what to look for. But not until you have rolled up your sleeves and throughly examined as many pieces as you can lay your hands on will all that you have learned begin to come together.

Handling a good genuine example helps to set a sense of standards and to give a reliable feel for the right construction, color, texture, proportion, etc. Knowledge of the correct techniques originally used is of great help in detecting the good from the bad. Very few fakers or forgers can totally succeed in eliminating all traces of their own period.

Finding opportunities to turn the genuine article upside down and inside out without giving offense to its owner calls for tact. But almost everyone with knowledge is grateful for the help he has received; most are willing to help a budding collector.

And what can you do with the dreaded fake once you are its not-so-proud owner? Keep it and let it remind you that skepticism can be as valuable as knowledge.

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