That is the question, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet might have said.
Collectors and experts have debated the question for many years. The
popular PBS “Antiques Roadshow” has brought wonderful attention to
the world of antiques –explaining valuation, condition, fakes and
discouraging the damage done by overzealous amateur cleaning and
refinishing. Unfortunately, this has discouraged many people from
doing any restoration or even cleaning antique furniture. The answer
will never be settled definitively, but there is a great deal of
difference between refinishing your grandmother’s 1900’s oak buffet
with green paint and a few plant stains, and refinishing a
Chippendale chest from the 1700’s that still has its original
finish. Refinishing usually makes sense except in cases of great
rarity and truly original historic condition.
If a piece is genuine Chippendale or Georgian and is 250 years old
and in exceptional original condition, it will be worth much more
than its numerous refinished cousins. A serious collector may pay
much more for an original finish that may appear far less attractive
to the rest of us.
Most individuals who just buy nice antiques to use and enjoy would
prefer an attractive finish that is in excellent condition, whether
it is original, the second or fifth finish. Generally, if pieces are
less than 100 or 150 years old, there is an original finish premium
paid only for the most pristine pieces. Arts and Crafts collectors
specially prize original finishes when they are in excellent
condition. Most other buyers are not very tolerant of extreme wear,
stains or deterioration.
The craze of “keep it original” can be carried to extremes. It is
probably excessive to stop polishing silverware, or to let furniture
simply remain dirty. When a chair is dangerous to use because of a
loose leg, who would not have it re-glued unless it was in a museum?
Would even a purist remove heating and plumbing from a 300 year old
house? “Worn out” furniture that would have gone to a landfill can
often be refinished and recycled for a new generation, something
that makes sense for ecological, economic and sentimental reasons.
Naturally, the original craftsmen and artists who built these pieces
would be very offended if the finish wasn’t maintained or redone
when worn out. Indeed, many repairs add charm and history to old
In a perfect world, every piece of furniture would
be original. Nothing would have cat scratches, dog chews, plant
rings, loose legs, candle burns, broken mirrors or lost hardware. In
the real world, a very small number of pieces endure hundreds of
years almost unscathed by time, sunlight, fires, even the spills of
small children. These rare survivors are very special, they are
displayed on “Antiques Roadshow” and are very valuable because of
their charmed life - most pieces that are a couple hundred years old
have already been repaired, restored or refinished many times by
many different people.
As buyers of antique furniture, we all prefer original finishes in
wonderful like-new condition, but only a tiny fraction of antiques
are so lucky and well cared-for to remain mint for a hundred or
hundreds of years. The other antiques need to be evaluated on a case
by case basis, and careful restoration or refinishing extends the
life and beauty and durability of most antique furniture.
Author Ken Melchert has taught Art History for many years. Since 1985, Ken and his wife Rebecca have operated the Harp Gallery Antiques in Appleton, WI.