When is restoration a desecration?

Antiques dealers often advise against giving face-lifts to pieces with a past

April 27, 2003|By Nadia Lerner | Nadia Lerner,Special to the Sun

Would you restore an antique American tavern table whose maple finish is scarred by centuries-old wear and tear?

Say "yes," and you might be sorry.

"The finish on a piece of furniture is viewed by many people similarly to the way an archaeologist or historian views an archaeological site," says Leslie Keno, senior specialist in American furniture at Sotheby's auction house in New York.

According to Keno, a frequent appraiser of American furniture on PBS' Antiques Roadshow, an antique that has sustained damage over the centuries may be more valuable because of its flaws.

"The finish, it has layers that may be varnish, dirt, smoke and burns from candles from the 18th or 19th century. All these layers tell a story that comprises a tape recording of the way that object has lived. If you take off those layers, similar to an archaeological site, you're basically erasing the tape of history for that particular piece," Keno says.

Whether restoration robs antiques of their integrity and value is a debate that's raged for years. Purists won't consider buying a piece that's been restored. On the flip side are buyers and dealers who won't touch a piece unless it's free of major defects, even if perfecting it came at the cost of restoration.

Whether to restore or not depends on what's acceptable to the collectors of a particular period, says Brian Stair, who worked in Sotheby's now-defunct restoration department and owns Oxford Restoration in New York.

Stair says that during the past three decades, American furniture collectors have looked for furniture that is "untouched and unrestored and as grungy as possible."

On the other hand, Stair explains, restoration is not as big an issue with European furniture. "Obviously the more important a piece, the more closely you scrutinize the methods of proper restoration," he says.

Certain pieces should not be touched, says Brent Johnson, owner of B&D Johnson Antiques, a Greenwich, Conn., store that carries English, American and Continental period pieces.

For example, restoring an expensive piece of antique furniture that has its original paint would compromise its integrity. However, Johnson is not averse to having items restored when it's done properly and doesn't detract from the piece.

But for people investing large sums of money, authenticity is key, says Sotheby's Keno.

A recent Sotheby's auction, he says, featured a bombe chest of drawers. The 1772 piece, signed and dated by American furniture maker Nathan Bowen, had been squirreled away in a maid's room, where it was used to store clothes.

Keno says its top had burn marks, possibly from a flatiron. "It was essentially used as an ironing board," he says. "It also had rust on top left by coat hangers." But it had the original finish. "It caused quite a stir because it was a work of art."

The piece, which he calls "a case of benign neglect," sold at auction for nearly $1.5 million.

Nadia Lerner is a reporter with The (Stamford) Advocate, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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