Rapaport Magazine

The Importance of Authenticating Estate Pieces

How to make sure vintage jewelry is the real thing.

By Leah Meirovich

Whether it’s an Art Deco Burmese ruby cuff, a Van Cleef & Arpels zip necklace, or an anonymous ring with old mine-cut diamonds and milgrained platinum wire work, true estate jewelry can be worth big bucks. But mistaking a clever knock-off for the genuine article can end up costing big bucks instead. For large auction houses, online resale sites and dealers who specialize in vintage pieces, knowing how to authenticate estate jewelry is an absolute necessity.

The challenges of doing so can seem endless: how to identify different hallmarks, changes in signatures over time, even the percentages of the metals design houses use. And sometimes, even the most skilled jewelry experts can be duped.

“The smartest and most experienced collectors and dealers have sometimes found themselves in a situation where they have been bamboozled,” says Sara Thomeier, head of jewelry at Phillips. “They’ve been unintentionally in possession of something that wasn’t exactly what they thought it was. It’s an unfortunate side of the business that there’s a lot of property out there floating around that isn’t exactly 100% kosher. It doesn’t mean that you’re not intelligent, it doesn’t mean that you’re not honest. All of us can be fooled.”

Much of the problem is that by nature, estate jewelry has many different niches and categories, and no luxury maker or design house has a standardized set of rules, Thomeier continues. This means that anyone dealing in vintage pieces must have a huge encyclopedia of knowledge to work with — or at least know where to get hold of people who do.

“One of the most important parts of my job is knowing when I don’t know something,” explains Kaitlin Shinnick, director of jewelry at Skinner Auctioneers. “I am a jewelry generalist, and that’s what an auction house specialist has to be. I know I have to know a little about a lot, but sometimes you need someone who knows a lot about a little.”

On average, no fewer than three people will inspect an item before officially declaring it genuine or inauthentic.

“When we authenticate jewelry, it’s a collaborative effort,” says Jean Ghika, global head of jewelry for Bonhams. “So there may be three or four people who are looking at one item, and we would want a consensus of opinion, and if there isn’t, we would ask further questions, or maybe go for further verification.”

In that vein, you can’t be afraid to have a difference of opinion with other specialists, stresses Shinnick. Speaking out can make all the difference in preventing the sale of an inauthentic piece.

“We usually have at least two to three members of the department examine the piece, and they must agree about every aspect — the age, the materials, the maker — before we can move forward,” she states. “About 2% or 3% of the time, we differ. You have to always be free to disagree with your colleague and say, ‘I think you’re wrong.’ Even if it means possibly offending someone. Because the most important thing at the end of the day is that we are representing the piece correctly.”

“I know I have to know a little about a lot, but sometimes you need someone who knows a lot about a little”

A matter of time

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to verifying jewelry is time. While some pieces practically scream their provenance, others can be much more difficult, and it can take a while to check aspects such as stone cut, workmanship, manufacture, style, and wear and tear.

“There are some pieces you can look at for a few minutes and just know,” says Shinnick. “Some might take a good half an hour, and others are just going to be real stumpers. Those can take you days or even weeks. And even then, sometimes you’re going to have to bring in an outside expert.”

Rebecca Boyajian-Pecnik, fine jewelry manager of online resale site Fashionphile, agrees. “Something like a Cartier Love ring can be authenticated rather quickly, but something like a Bulgari Serpenti diamond bracelet is not as simple,” she explains. “We will actually count every single diamond in that piece, so that’s going to take a healthy amount of time.”

When it comes to heirlooms, wading through games of family telephone may also pose difficulties.

“Because jewelry is something that has emotional and monetary value, it’s often handed down from generation to generation with a story,” says Ghika. “And inevitably, that story gets slightly embellished or adjusted with time. It’s not uncommon for us to see a piece of jewelry where someone says something like, ‘It’s from the 19th century,’ but you can see that the configuration of it and the cuts of the stones are not consistent with what you would expect from a 19th-century piece of jewelry. So that’s something that happens quite often.”

A big void

Similarities between different houses that use the same workshop can get confusing as well, and may lead to mistaking one jeweler for another, Thomeier notes. “There are ateliers in Paris that worked for different houses. So you might have a maker’s mark for an atelier that created jewelry for Boucheron, and they also made pieces for Lacloche.”

Making matters harder is the distinct lack of information available for many luxury maisons. Having a good idea that a ring is Van Cleef & Arpels can only take you so far if the house itself is unable or unwilling to substantiate that belief.

“There is often a huge vacuum of information,” Thomeier says. “There’s a void when you want to go and find the records on certain things. Some houses are very forthcoming and helpful, and then there are places that just don’t want to have that role.”

On top of that, most estate jewelry archives predate the trade’s shift to digitalization. This means a person must actually go searching through paper trails of invoices, drawings and records to verify a piece, which can be time-consuming and costly.

“Pamela Lipkin is a super-important collector, and she’s become the accepted industry expert on Paul Flato jewelry,” Thomeier says by way of example. “She owns a great majority of the archives of his drawings and his work. But when she wants to look for something, she has to go through 3,000 watercolor drawings and sketches, and another 2,000 or so vintage advertisements that she’s collected over the years to try and find the pieces represented. And Flato made a very small amount of jewelry. When you compare it to Van Cleef or Boucheron or one of the other houses that are so much more prolific, they probably made 1,000 pieces for every one that Flato made.”

Conflicting signs

One might think signed pieces are easier to authenticate than unsigned ones, but experts say just the opposite is true.

“If you’re looking at an Art Deco bracelet, the signature really shouldn’t be the thing that’s driving authentication,” says Shinnick. “It should be the stones, the workmanship, the manufacture, the style — all those things that go into it. I always feel like I’m more suspicious when there’s a signature, like it’s starting to fall into the too-good-to-be-true category. I always look at the larger piece, and then move to the signature last.”

Thomeier agrees that buyers often fall into the trap of looking only at the signature as a tell, and not focusing on other factors that may offer conflicting information.

“On the one hand, a signature is critical, because without it, you can’t even start the conversation,” she acknowledges. “But on the other hand, the reliance on signatures does present a growing danger that you just have a generation of buyers that don’t look at the details and don’t learn to appreciate the nuances.”

Vintage pieces can also face problems with rubbed-off or misplaced signatures.

“A lot of the time, especially with earrings, many makers stamp their signature on the backings, and people change out earring backings all the time,” explains Shinnick. “They go from clips to posts and back again, and the signature is long gone. If you have paperwork, it can be difficult enough, but if you don’t, there’s now nothing to back up that this jewelry was signed at one point, and it just makes it very complicated.”

In good hands
Estate jewelry is often inherited, and a common by-product is that the possessor is not completely aware of its provenance, or even its authenticity. That can make selling it challenging, because until you know what you have, how will you know what it’s worth?

The most important thing is to take it to a trusted source for evaluation, says Janet Levy, a principal with estate jewelry dealer J. & S.S. De Young.

“The jewelry can’t talk. It can’t tell its full story,” she notes. “It can’t say, ‘I started out as a Van Cleef necklace, and then my owner’s granddaughters turned me into two bracelets.’ But if you go to someone knowledgeable who has sold tens of thousands of estate pieces and has a good reputation, it makes that leap of faith easier.”

That doesn’t mean placing your full trust in a single person, though, maintains Marianne Fisher, owner of Paul Fisher Jewelry. When selling an estate piece, always get at least a second opinion, and preferably a third, she advises; two people may offer you $100, and the third may offer $5,000, and that’s how you know who’s trustworthy.

There are also many signs of provenance and value that jewelry owners can find for themselves before taking a piece for authentication. This will give them an idea of what they have, and can help them be confident when selling the piece.

“It’s always easier to tell if something is wrong than if it’s right,” explains Fisher, who is also a founding member and managing director of the International Antique Jewelers Association (IAJA) and The Jewelers Circle. “If they’re saying something is Edwardian, but it’s rough to the touch or punched out on the back, it’s not handmade, and not from the Art Deco or Victorian period. You also wouldn’t find a piece of Victorian jewelry made in platinum or 18-karat white gold, because they didn’t exist. It would only have been yellow gold, or silver.”

Other indicators lie in the small details most people wouldn’t think to look for.

“If it’s a piece with chains or loops from 100 years ago, you would see wear from the loops rubbing against each other, whereas a new piece would have none,” Fisher continues. “And, if you see something that says Cartier Paris, but it also says 14-karat gold, you know it’s a fake, because the French never accept anything below 18-karat, as it’s not considered precious metal. Also, check for a hallmark. Anything made in France needs to be hallmarked. Tiffany & Co. almost always sign their jewelry, and Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Bulgari always number their jewelry.”

Of course, not every jeweler has the requisite know-how to assess an estate piece accurately.

“I sold a pair of diamond earrings made by Harry Winston in Geneva, and they have the hallmark of one of their makers, Jacques Timey, who made exclusively for Winston,” says Levy. “The lady I sold them to took them to her local jeweler and asked them to put a new back on her Winston earrings. The jeweler told her they were not Winston, because they weren’t signed Winston. She came back to me and said, ‘You sold me earrings, and this other jeweler is saying they’re not Winston.’ I actually got one of the auction house experts I know to write her a letter explaining the hallmark on the earrings was actually Winston.”

The new order

Rules for jewelers have become more stringent over time, making it easier to identify modern goods than older ones in some cases. Location is also a factor.

“Certain countries, like Italy or France, had very strict rules about the way metal had to be marked, so looking at that mark can help determine where a piece came from or put a time stamp on it,” Thomeier says. “Things that come from places that didn’t have those guidelines can be more challenging. Older jewelry is more difficult, because there just weren’t the same guidelines for signing and marking things that came about later on.”

Ghika, for her part, disagrees. She believes older jewelry is easier to verify because certain things stand out and aid identification, such as the overall quality of the piece, the markings, the type of metal used and the cut of the stones. Contemporary jewelry is not as unique, and is therefore easier to copy.

“I think it’s always more challenging for the more modern pieces, because there are a number of reproductions on the market,” she says. “But it’s not always as apparent at first glance as when you’ve fully delved into it.”

Mistakes happen

No matter how diligent experts may be, no one can be accurate 100% of the time, especially as the market for fakes gets better.

LegitGrails, a third-party authentication site, generally gets in more than 40 items a day for verification, including shoes, handbags, jewelry and other luxury items. Approximately half of those goods turn out to be counterfeit, according to cofounder Nikita Chen. Many of those items are from resale sites such as The RealReal or 1stdibs.

“Most of the larger resale sites have an authentication process that you can trust,” he says. “However, there is a bigger issue of the need for constant research and keeping up to date on what’s out there. I think there’s also a time pressure for them, because their volume is so huge, and authentication is such a tedious process with so many details you need to pay attention to. There might be a new replica model out there, and if you’re not aware of it, and it looks so similar to the original, you might call it real when it’s actually counterfeit.”

And for those who think estate jewelry is a better bet because it’s harder to fake than modern pieces? Think again, says Angelina Kildjaskina, LegitGrails’ other cofounder.

“Some customers assume vintage jewelry can’t be replicated,” she remarks. “But actually, there are fake manufacturers that even copy the vintage beads and the special materials.”

Fashionphile has also discovered fakes during its jewelry evaluation — some so good that most experts would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. However, the company views this as a learning opportunity rather than a failure.

“When we come across what are referred to as ‘super-fakes,’ it’s a very good thing,” asserts Boyajian-Pecnik. “There’s so much to learn from that. We really have to pay attention, because if you look at it too quickly and don’t test every point, you could easily make the wrong call. But those pieces actually teach us a lot about what’s currently going on in the counterfeit market and what to look for. It really helps us.”

“There are fake manufacturers that even copy the vintage beads and the special materials”

Creating trust

If even the most experienced specialists can make a mistake, how can customers know they can trust the places they buy estate jewelry? Even if the failure-to-detect rate is five out of 100 items, what happens if you’re one of the unlucky five? And what about popular sites like 1stdibs, which offer jewelry through third-party sellers but don’t do their own authentication?

“I think if you are offering jewelry and stating something on your website, you should be pretty sure what you’re saying is correct,” comments Shinnick. “It’s very important to know who you are buying from and what their level of expertise is.”

In fact, simply providing customers with a measure of security in case something goes wrong can go a long way toward creating trust.

“I know of instances in an auction house where there has been something that had to be returned,” says Thomeier. “It does happen, and that’s an unfortunate thing, but any good business person or auction house that realizes its mistake is going to make it right.”

Image: Paul Fisher Jewelry

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - December 2021. To subscribe click here.

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