April Fool 2000
The Brewster Chair and the game of "Fool
In 1970, the Henry Ford Museum purchased
a remarkable 17th century armchair from an antiques dealer who
stumbled upon it sitting in the parlor of a house in Maine. It
was a massive, throne-like chair made up of spindles, a type long
associated with one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
Early chairs were often made by men called
turners who produced the chair parts by turning them on a lathe.
Sockets were drilled in the resulting spindles that were then
assembled like a Tinker Toy. The resulting construction often
was not meant to provide a place of comfort but rather it was
intended to impress the viewer and confirm the sitter's status
and position. The king sat on a throne; Elder Brewster sat in
his great, turned chair.
Because of its rarity, this "Brewster"
chair was highly prized by the museum; it was even featured on
the cover of a publication describing the early furniture in the
Museum's collection. The authenticity of the chair, however, was
called into question in 1977 when The Providence Journal published
a story about a wood worker who attempted to demonstrate his skill
and knowledge by making a chair that would fool the experts. The
article described in great detail how the chair was aged and how
a fake provenance was imagined to provide a rationale for every
one of the dings and nicks that represented centuries of wear.
Unfortunately, the chair was the very one that Henry Ford Museum
had purchased seven years before!
The story was picked up by several antiques
publications. From these the story spread to The New York Times
and then to hundreds of local newspapers. An extensive analysis
of the chair proved that it was indeed a modern fake. For example,
x-rays showed that the drill bits used for making the holes that
received the turned spindles were "modern" having a pointed end
rather than having the spoon shape of early bits. With great embarrassment,
the museum finally admitted that the maker had fooled the experts,
and it wasn't an April Fool.
The Henry Ford Museum keeps the chair as
an educational tool. It has been loaned to several national exhibitions
about fakes and forgeries. It is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum
where you can decide if you would be fooled.