Furniture styles come and go, but Duncan Phyfe is a perennial favourite. Warm wood colour and pleasing forms are hallmarks of the style. Duncan Phyfe (also known as Duncan Fife) was a New York City craftsman whose company operated in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Phyfe has become the generic term for American-made antique or neoclassical style furniture influenced by classical Greek and Roman forms and ornamentation. While Phyfe pieces are prevalent due to an abundance of reproductions made in the 1930s and '40s, finding an original is rare.
Look for classic Duncan Phyfe characteristics such as carved reeds, turned "urn" posts and pedestals, draped swags, acanthus leaves, lion-paw feet, rosettes, lyres, wheat ears and trumpets on tables. Lyre-backed chairs are another benchmark of the Phyfe style.
Inspect and feel the wood. Early Phyfe furniture was made of mahogany, a warm dark wood with deep red overtones. It was not unusual for Phyfe to pay £650 per log for mahogany from Cuba or Santo Domingo, and he often supervised the cutting himself. After 1830, most of the furniture was made from rosewood, walnut, maple or satinwood.
Observe any markings on the furniture. Phyfe rarely marked or signed pieces. Estimates are that he signed only about 20 pieces among the thousands produced, so finding a signature, even on an original, will be difficult. Unless you have inherited such a piece, acquiring an original Duncan Phyfe is extremely rare and expensive.
Check the patina and wear. The older the piece, the more patina, or natural oxidation, of wood and finishes will occur. This darkens the piece, especially in corners and carvings. Older pieces will also show natural wear patterns. Beware of pieces that have "created" signs of wear. Dealers or manufacturers of new pieces may try to create age by distressing the finish or wood.
Look at the overall balance and form of the piece. Phyfe is known for grace and beauty. If proportions are off or elements do not seem to fit together, it is likely a poor reproduction. Good-quality reproductions are still valuable, and many are antiques by virtue of their age. Antiques are considered to be 100 years or older. Younger than 100 is considered vintage, although many people use the terms interchangeably, if incorrectly.
Ask for the provenance or history of a piece. True Duncan Phyfe pieces and many of the best reproductions come from the New York area. Try to verify the provenance of pricey pieces before you buy. When selling, a solid history will help bring top dollar.