Among Mid-Century furniture fans, the work of Charles and Ray Eames is paramount. But because their designs were so widely copied, recognizing an original – and collectible – piece can be tricky. We spoke with Richard Wright, director of the Wright auction house and specialists in the Eames’ work, to garner some tips on identifying legitimate Eames furniture and how to evaluate its worth.
For more Eames furniture examples and auction values, read: Mid-Century Masters - Charles & Ray Eames.
1. The Good Stuff
The most valuable Eames pieces date from the first decade of production: 1946-1956. But pieces from the later ’50s to the early ’60s can have collectible value, too. The good news is “a lot of the work is signed,” Wright says. About 70% of the pieces had paper decals, so the first thing to look for on the underside of a chair or table, or the inside a cabinet drawer, is a sticker (or the remnants of one). “Not being marked doesn’t mean something’s a fake,” Wright cautions – labeling was a little loosey-goosey in the early years – but it’s a good start.
2. The Particulars
The paper stickers varied, depending on the year and article of furniture. But they were usually colored red, cream or black (or a combination). They usually say “Charles Eames” or “Designed by Charles Eames.” They bear in the name of the manufacturer: Herman Miller Furniture Company, with its logo – it looks like a pair of stylized antlers, or a two-pronged crown. Underneath is written Zeeland, Michigan or Venice, California, the locales of the company’s factories. (Be wary if you see anything with a more specific address; five-digit zip codes didn't exist in the '50s.)
3. Names To Watch For
Objects made with molded fiberglass, like the famous bucket and shell chairs mid-century furniture collectors clamor to own, often have decals bearing the name “Zenith Plastics” still intact. Another name to watch for: Tigrette, which made the Eames line of toys.
4. Another Label, and Look for the Letters, Too
On wooden chairs, tables and recliners, the sticker often includes the name “Evans” – the Evans Product Company manufactured the plywood the Eames used so artfully.
The underside of a piece may also have three letters stamped, impressed or hand-written on it – something like LCW, DAX, DCM. These are the model names. Eames pieces were named military-fashion, Wright notes, with three-letter abbreviations. “LCW” stands for “Low Chair Wood”, for example, while “DCM” means “Dining Chair Metal.”
5. Finishing Touch
Do ask if a piece has its original finish. In keeping with their mantra of functional furniture, the Eames weren’t into fancy finishes; so a piece should have a soft patina, further augmented by the passage of 50-odd years. The earliest furniture was in muted colors; bright saturated hues came in later. But whatever the color, “a real warning sign is if a piece is too band-box fresh, too gleaming,” says Wright. “It should look a little worn, show its age – that’s desirable.”
6. Prizes for Originality
Looking old is one thing, but – as with any antique or collectible – condition does matter. And the more original that condition, the better. Even such details as whether the screws on a piece have ever been loosened can affect a piece’s value. (“Some Eames collectors do get into minutiae,” Wright allows.) Some repair-oriented changes – such as a new rubber feet tips or shock mounts to replace dried-out or cracked ones – don’t matter that much Still, perfection commands a price. At Wright's recent Eames auction, the storage unit, left (a nice, but not especially rare model) in completely original condition fetched $15,000. If it had been refinished, or altered in any way, it would’ve gone for only $5,000, says Wright.
7. Not All Models Are Created Equal
Because they were mass-produced, there are a lot of examples of Eames furniture out there – so, many items are not extremely expensive (at least, by antique-furniture standards). But some models were less common than others. So, in terms of pricing, “it does become about rarities,” Wright says. At his auction, the chair pictured left fetched $2,000 – while a pair of similar ones, the same model from the same year with the same sticker and in basically the same condition, collectively brought $500. Why? “It was all about the Harlequin-pattern upholstery” on the first chair, explains Wright – an unusual decorative feature, with “a really nice vibe.” And, needless to say, in near-new shape.
8. Stay Close to Home
The Eames designed furniture for both offices and homes. If you’re acquiring mainly for investment value, focus on the latter. “The office furniture is generally worth less, has less collector cachet,” Wright notes. That’s partly due to popularity – “most of their greatest hits were designed for the home” – and scarcity: Herman Miller began phasing out the residential furniture line in 1965, but continued making the business line. In 1994, the company launched the Herman Miller for the Home collection, replicating many of the old Eames designs. Strictly speaking, they are legit and have “great integrity,” Wright says – “they’re just not for the collector market.”
9. Do Your Homework
As with any area of collectibles – if you’re serious, study the field and educate yourself. Many museums feature Eames pieces. There’s no shortage of literature about the duo; Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames by Marilyn & John Neuhart and Ray Eames (Harry N. Abrams, 1989) is “definitely the Bible,” Wright says. The website www.eamesoffice.com, run by Charles’ grandson, is also a valuable resource and currently working on a catalogue raisonné of the Eames canon. The Herman Miller website, www.hermanmiller.com, has a timeline and other information about the Eames.