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Thursday, February 17, 2011

According to a Collector: Is it real?

I recently ran across an article entitled "Is It Real?" on the Jet Set Modern website. It is a three-part look at originals, knockoffs, reproductions and re-issues from the point of view of a collector, a manufacturer and an heir of a famous designer.

Collector Sandy McLendon contends that most people have a knee-jerk reaction to pieces other than an original for several reasons: respect for the designer's intent, the desire to protect an investment or plain ol' snobbery. McLendon also points out, and I think rightfully so, that most people don't understand design law and don't really have a clear understanding of the terms original, knock-off, reproduction or re-issue, even though they may think they do.

McLendon is quick to point out that there is much "gray area" surrounding these terms and warns against oversimplification but, with that caveat, gives a quick, general definition of each one:

  • Knock-off - An item usually of inferior quality that borrows liberally from a design without actually copying it
  • Reproduction - An exact copy of a item that is of equal quality (or sometimes even better) and sometimes even made by the company that made the original
  • Re-issue - An item that is put back into production after being discontinued, sometimes using original molds or dies and sometimes addressing design or production problems encountered when making the original, resulting in a better product

Authorized re-issues are usually produced because the original company no longer exists or no longer wants to make the product. In this case, the designer, his or her heirs or the old company gives permission to another company, as in the case of Vitra's George Nelson Coconut chair, which Herman Miller decided was too expensive to produce.

Unauthorized reproductions usually result when the original design patent expires, at which time it's anybody's game, but they can be the result of a company's having bought old molds and dies from a company going out of business.

And what does the law say about all this anyway? Interestingly enough, you can pretty much copy anything you want to as long as you make a few changes, even something as minor as a color change, don't call it by the designer's trademark name and don't apply a fake label.

But then you have to deal with the thorny issue of what exactly constitutes an "original." Is it the prototype of a product? Is it a production piece? And then is it the earliest production or the latest? Or if you've bought an "original" Eames lounge chair but it has been reupholstered or restuffed, is it really still "original"?

All these are things the collector must consider when buying mid-century pieces. McLendon suggested that there actually are some good reasons to buy reproductions or re-issues:

  • They're more affordable than very rare pieces.
  • They can be used as a "placeholder" in a collection till an original piece is found.
  • They can be substituted for pieces so valuable that actual use is impractical.

But does McLendon want repros or re-issues after somewhat making a case for them? No, not really.

Genuine Eames 670 Lounge Chair and 671 Ottoman ($7,250)

Genuine Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, 1956 ($9,800)
Made the first production year. Does this make it "more original"?
Price tag says "Yes!"

Unidentified Eames knock-off...Notice the extra leg on the ottoman?

Selig "Eames" chair

Plycraft "Eames" lounge chair and ottoman ($549)

Vitra Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

When you line them all up, you begin to see why this is such a confusing and difficult issue. Everybody, it seems, makes a chair like this...and a few of them were actually designed by Charles Eames.

(This is the first of three posts on this topic. The second will run Thursday, February 24. The third will run on Thursday, March 3.)


  1. I have always had n issue with copying..even if they dont attribute it the original is like undermining original work of art and trying to pass of the stolen idea as original..i know so many people around me who dont know that eames like chair is not the same as the eames chair itself...its sad!

  2. Good lesson. It's good to be aware before buying. (I just got an atomic era mosaic tile coffee table that I know is the real deal because it still has the tag from Stewart's Dry Goods - yes, I am sooo proud of it - you can see it here, or not, just sayin' so proud - )

  3. Something that amazes me is when someone selling an item says "this is an original....." yet they have no confirmation that it is an original.

  4. @Sudha: The artiicle "Is It Real?" really turned out to be thought-provoking. I went into it thinking I was really clear about where I stood, and by the time I had read all three perspectives, I could see what a complicated issue it is. Still, I agree that people need to read descriptions carefully, because "inspired by" and "style" are dead giveaways that the item isn't an original.

  5. @DearHelenHartman: I went to your blog and LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your table!!! I hope to see you back here commenting often.

  6. @Krazy4Mod: People who buy vintage items need to learn as much as they can about the pieces they like, because there are fraudulent sellers out there!

  7. Not all are fraudulent, some are only misinformed.

    There's a lot of disinformation that has been spread around by so called "experts" over the years, some of it is so prevalent that it is thought to be the de facto truth. I repeatedly come across this in my own research.

  8. @Jonathan: While fraudulent sellers do exist, I agree that most sellers are as honest as they know how to be. Most are just repeating in good faith what they were told when they bought the item and haven't bothered to verify the information.

    Even when people do attempt to identify a piece, the internet can compound the confusion, because one faulty piece of information can be posted on so many successive sites that almost overnight it seems to be part of a large body of evidence.