How Refinishing Antiques Affects Value
Grunge is good. Perhaps you saw the Antique Roadshow episode where a seasoned couple from Georgia brought a cherry bonnet-top highboy for inspection. Their tall chest of drawers was supported on four "cabriole" shaped legs and, as I recall, it had complimenting drawerface embellishment on both the top and bottom sections. The cabinetmaker carved fan-like "shells" or circular "pinwheels." One of the fair-haired Keno brothers, I believe it was Leigh, was the appraiser. His first step was backwards. Keno assessed the piece as a judge might rate a beauty pageant contestant. The legs were graceful and trim, not clunky. The highboy's height-to-width ratio was a pleasing 2 to 1. Next time you visit a museum you'll find "vertically proportioned" furnishings and other antiques are generally more appealing than boxy or fat examples. The bottom line of the case, called the "apron," was shaped by the cabinetmaker in a rhythmic series of scrolls and lobes. The arch shaped "bonnet" top had a graceful curve and lift, reflecting the contour of the legs. The cherrywood was richly grained and robust in color.
"It's beautiful," Keno said.
The couple seemed to rise when they heard those words, like blooming flowers.
The appraiser's next step was to make sure that piece was "full period," meaning that it was constructed during the time when its overall form was first introduced. Careful examination of workmanship, toolmarks, style, materials, shrinkage, wear, and patinization confirmed that the piece was indeed consistent with of the best furniture made in the American "Queen Anne" period. (1720-1760). Then, Keno compared drawer sides from the upper half of the two-part case with those from the bottom section. The secondary wood (white pine) and the dovetails were consistent-good! The brasses appeared to be original and they were identical from top to bottom-excellent! The piece was no mismatched "marriage." Finally, the appraiser inquired about the piece's history or "provenance."
"It's been handed down in my family since the 18th century," the wife said. "It had a grungy, musty, brownish surface when we inherited it years ago. We had it refinished. Other than that, it's all original!" she gleaned.
"I have good news and bad news," Keno reported. "The good news is that your highboy is a superior example of 18th century Connecticut furniture, and it's worth around $30,000. The bad news is, if you hadn't refinished it, if it was still in the original surface, it would be worth $240,000!"
The couple smiled, then disappeared into the floorboards.
Personally, I think Keno exaggerated his before/after price difference to hammer in his point. Unless you get a go-ahead from several acknowledged experts, don't refinish quality antiques in old or original surface.
- In some cases, the coloration is truer to original intent. A mahogany-like pigmented finish was often applied to cherry, maple, and other native woods by American cabinetmakers trying to upgrade the look of their wares. Tiffany and other artisans commonly "antiqued" bronze and other metals used in lamps and other products.
- Grungy untouched paint, varnish, and oxidation is considered beautiful by many of today's top curators and collectors.
- Unrefinished surface is a valuable clue in determining antique integrity. Be it painting, paper, metal, textile, or wood; one of the biggest challenges for fakers and restorers is mimicking old surface. Undeniable integrity heightens price.