Antiques Roadshow Find or Nakashima Knockoff?

Last week a friend of mine, John, was at my shop telling me about a chair that he found on Craigslist. It wasn’t in perfect shape, and the wood was stained with red blotches that he said looked like Kool-Aid, and he joked that they were more likely blood. It was, however, well built, in good shape overall and had not been repaired, so he shelled out the asking price of $20.

After getting the chair back to his house, John quickly got to work sanding on the chair by hand to remove the stains and then followed the sanding with a little Danish oil to make the chair look like new.

This is how the chair looks now, after the stains were removed.

This is how the chair looks now, after the stains were removed.

I’m not sure exactly how it happened and I don’t know that it is important to the story, but another friend of ours stopped by John’s house and between the two of them they realized that the bottom of the chair seat was signed. Luckily, John hadn’t sanded the bottom of the seat and everything that was written on it was still very clear. They found, in large letters, lightly written in pencil, an inscription that says “Cotton Rocker” and in bold, black ink what appears to be, “George Nakashima, March 1974”.

Pencil layout lines and markings, a few red stains and a brushed signature on the bottom of the seat.

Pencil layout lines and markings, a few red stains and a brushed signature on the bottom of the seat.

Looks like "George Nakashima, March 1974" to me.

Looks like “George Nakashima, March 1974” to me.

It didn’t take long after hearing the story for me to end up at John’s house, so I could see the chair for myself. I wasn’t expecting much and imagined that I would know right away that the chair wasn’t a legitimate Nakashima, not because I am a Nakashima expert, but because I know wood and something was bound to be obviously wrong with the materials or construction.

My initial concern was that John destroyed any possible value with a wild bit of overly aggressive sanding, but that wasn’t the case. The chair looked great, and after a little more interrogating, I discerned that it didn’t take much work to remove the stains. And, though it didn’t necessarily help, nothing John did permanently damaged the chair.

After I gave the chair a quick look, I plopped myself down and took it for a test rock. The chair is a bit low for me, but it makes sense for someone who is probably a foot shorter, like Mr. Nakashima himself. Both the seat and back are wide and provide great support while still being flexible and comfortable. As a matter of fact, it is probably the most comfortable, all-wood chair that I have ever sat in.

I sat and rocked for a short time while we talked more about the chair and my disbelief that he found it on Craigslist for $20. It was beginning to look like it was the real deal, but even if it wasn’t, the price was fantastic for a chair of this quality. He definitely did not overpay.

After I rocked for a bit, I decided to really do some detective work. I started by looking closely at the wood. The walnut had the right patina for being around 40 years old and the spindles were made of hickory, which later research verified was appropriate.

The only thing that seemed odd to me was the wood selected for the seat. When I think of George Nakashima, I think of wood and the way that he respected it and the way that he would make sure that the wood was selected with as much care as the actual construction – this seat seems to be less so. While not wrong, the seat is composed of seven pieces of walnut that appear to be selected on a Friday just before quitting time. I imagine Nakashima making his seats out of a single piece or two pieces of matched woods and it looks like this walnut wasn’t even from the same tree, which is a bit hard for me to swallow, especially knowing that Nakashima was known for having plenty of wood on hand.

Everything else about the chair oozes quality and makes me believe that it is a Nakashima product or was made by someone who appreciated his work and tried hard to duplicate it. All of the proportions are well-found, with a great balance between strength and delicateness. The hickory spindles are almost dainty, but offer more than enough support to the backrest, which is equally small, but more than adequate. The details that I really noticed and appreciated, are the two spindles that extend through the top of the backrest. They protrude so little that they are almost unnoticed, but they reach up just far enough to be a detail that connotes fine craftsmanship.

The overwhelming clue to me that this may truly be a Nakashima piece of woodwork is that the chair is 100% solid, with no signs of loose joints or repairs. It is a testament to the fact that this chair was built with care from the original maker, which I am guessing is George Nakashima or someone who spent lots of time with Mr. Nakashima.

While doing a little research on Nakashima and trying to find a photo of a similar signature (which I did not), I found some recent examples of authentic chairs that have sold at auction. It looks like similar chairs, like the one below, are selling currently for between $2,500 and $10,000. I assume that John’s chair will be at the lower end of the spectrum, even if it is found to be the real thing, since it is not in original mint condition. Even so, it is a heck of a find for $20.

This Nakashima rocker recently sold at auction. Except for the armrests, John's looks very similar. (Photo from Skinner Auctions).

This Nakashima rocker recently sold at auction. Except for the armrests, John’s looks very similar. (Photo from Skinner Auctions).

John plans to keep the chair and enjoy it for now. I told him that I thought it was a great idea because I don’t see it going down in value and it will give him time to try to find out more about that specific chair.

If you have any insights on how to determine the legitimacy of this piece, we would love to hear about it. I know John would love to determine if it is an actual Nakashima chair. I guess he could always go on Antiques Roadshow and find out for sure.

Update (3/5/17):
John heard back from the kids at Nakashima and it turns out that it is an original. They even have the original paperwork and will authenticate it for him. Lucky John!

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

15 responses to “Antiques Roadshow Find or Nakashima Knockoff?”

  1. Betsy Heck says :

    Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers (under new management – the Jeffers, who own Garth’s in Ohio) offer free appraisals on the last Tuesday of every month. They may be able to shed some light on it.

  2. BK Ellison says :

    Great story and blog Scott! I agree, original our not is a fantastic buy for $20! While I do not consider myself a traditional woodwork, I always appreciate articles like this to help expand on my knowledge.

    Hope to be visiting your cool ass shop again soon!

  3. ravenswoodtree@gmail.com says :

    I love the hell out of your blogposts. Thanks for doing this. This was another great one.

    Chris Wood Ravenswood Tree and Landscape LLC Po box 191 Ipswich,MA 01938

    >

  4. Jim Dillon says :

    Why not contact the Nakashima Workshops for an opinion? They’re still in business (last I heard, still helmed by George’s daughter) and still make this rocker: http://www.nakashimawoodworker.com/furniture/22/128 I would be curious to hear whether they’re willing to weigh in on this.

  5. thekiltedwoodworker says :

    Scott,

    Nakashima Furniture is still in business in New Hope, PA. His daughter runs it. They still make that rocking chair, although it’s called a “New Chair Rocker” now.

    http://www.nakashimawoodworker.com/furniture/22/128

    They can be reached at: info@nakashimawoodworker.com

    I’m sure they can probably shed some light on the subject.

    Also, I’m totally jealous. What an amazing find.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Thanks Ethan. John has contacted them. I haven’t heard an update yet. When I do, I will post the results. By the way his daughter (Mira) has the same name as my daughter. That was not planned on my part.

  6. Steve D says :

    That would be the toughest $20 scam to execute if it is fake. The photo of the real one had a laminated seat but better matching of the color. Either way, a great find.

  7. Ralph H. says :

    So what’s the verdict? You’ve not heard back yet? Sure seems legit…

  8. Sam bledsoe says :

    If this is still a legitimate website , I’d like to speak with you about a table that belongs to my family. How does one get in touch with the “nakashima” kids ?

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