By Peter Cook
generally agrees with
notion: Well-conceived and well-executed refinishing
and restoration usually enhances the
value of just about any piece of old furniture".
Awhile ago, we
at Antiques Roadshow
a letter from
editor Bob Flexner, pointing out that our apparent
obsession (my word, not his) with
"original finish" has had the effect
of misleading the public about what repairing and
refinishing actually do to the value of furniture
- most furniture, that is.
We're now in our sixth
season of Antiques
on PBS, and many millions tune in
every week No other PBS
program attracts such numbers week
after week, year after year,
and if our audience enjoys the
entertainment value of the show, they
seem to appreciate the
information they glean at least
means, of course, that there's a real
premium on the accuracy,
dependability and usefulness
of the information we provide.
contributor Larry Sullivan wrote in a
May 2000 Commentary that,
while it was fair enough to point out that for
very old, very valuable,
museum-quality furniture, "a refinished piece has less value than a
piece in pristine original condition
Roadshow reaches millions of people
who almost never see this type of
furniture other than in museums."
Roadshow further misleads people Larry contended, because when
the appraisers talk about value lost because of refinishing,
they don't make the point that they're only talking about certain rare
pieces. And they usually don't make the point that anything repaired
and or refinished was probably in
pretty poor shape to begin
with. The unfortunate result
is that more and more people are afraid to have
their dilapidated furniture touched.
"They're even afraid to have
minor damage repaired for fear
of mating a serious financial mistake."
After noting that most people
shouldn't have to worry about market
value and "should be
allowed to feel comfortable in having their furniture refinished and restored in a manner that
pleases them," Larry closes by urging
experts on the Roadshow to "play a key role in properly educating the public. While emphasizing the value and beauty of an original finish in good condition,
they should also advise the public that most
furniture does not lose value
when refinished, and that, in fact,
this furniture should get a new finish when the old one loses its visual and protective
These are very
good points. I'd hate to think
that we've created a subset of
American furniture owners
living in dread of a fatal financial
Antiques Roadshow is,
all, as how about value, including market value).
We do have many
people on the show -
probably the majority
who have no intention of selling their pieces, and they are routinely
encouraged to enjoy and use their antiques.
On occasion, we also go into some detail on issues of restoration
and conservation. Still, if I'm
reading this thing correctly it sounds
as if the Roadshow furniture experts are always saying, by and large, "leaving
things alone is good, refinishing is bad."
Understandably, our Americana experts
on the Roadshow live for
wonderful old pieces of
furniture that have somehow survived in
terrific condition - pieces not
used too hard, left out in
strong light for long periods of time
or forced to survive a flooded cellar.
Most old furniture, of course, doesn't come close to meeting those
standards. On the contrary, most
furniture has been well used (even
abused), scratched, broken, and often
repaired many times. How could
such furniture not be improved by a good job of refinishing
I talked with some of our furniture
specialists, and it's fair to
say that I found more agreement than I expected on this issue. Stephen
Fletcher of Skinner, Inc., told me
that more and more people are now "smart enough" to ask
the question about a given piece: "Is this something
I shouldn't touch, or does it matter?"
Others in our cadre of furniture
regulars said more or less the same thing.
As an example, a great old secretary
(bookcase on chest) made in
about 1820 by Christian
Shively came into our Indianapolis event this year. It had come to
the current owner covered
with 80- to 100-year-old paint,
and she'd had the piece completely
refinished. John Hays, the
Americana specialist from Christie's, said, "You had no choice," and went
on to compliment the refinishing work
and state the obvious: that the
restoration had saved the
piece and created substantial value
where there had been virtually none.
To be sure,
this is just one instance held up
against many others on the show that
glorify an original finish, and it's true that we don't include
very much "ordinary" furniture. We're
planning a segment in a
future Roadshow, however,
involving three pieces of furniture: one that
shouldn't be touched, one where it
wouldn't make any difference what was done to it, and one
someplace in the middle.
The question of what to do when a piece isn't
quite perfect arises just about everywhere we go. At the
Antiques Roadshow stop in
New York City, Leigh Keno came across a classic, circa-
1765 Philadelphia candle stand
he said was in beautiful "original" condition - except for a "new"
finish that someone had applied to the top about a century ago and that
was badly alligatored. Even with this
defect, let's call it,
Leigh thought the table would bring something like
$150,000 in today's market.
Leigh asked the table's owner
whether or not she was disposed to fix the top. She replied that she'd
rather leave it alone, and Leigh agreed: "That's probably what I would
do." Well, having
heard from Professional Refinishing
last year, we
wanted to press Leigh on that point, so we asked him why this table
wasn't a perfect candidate for a good, professional attack aimed at restoring
something close to the coveted original finish? Wouldn't that both
improve the aesthetic qualities of the piece and enhance its value?
The answer, Leigh said, was that many high-end
collectors - his customers - wouldn't mind the addition of the second
finish, and that the old look of the
might even be appealing to some. Trying to remove the added
finish to reveal the original underneath is easier suggested than done:
The original finish might not even be there, and refinishing would
likely make the piece look too new.
So where does that leave us? Let the record show
that Antiques Roadshow generally agrees with this notion:
Well-conceived and well-executed refinishing and restoration usually
enhances the value of just about any piece of old furniture. Exceptions
are those rare (often museum-quality) pieces that have somehow
survived in great `original' condition. If we say or imply the
contrary, we should be called on it.
Professional Refinishing for
the chance to address the issue here, and I hope many
professionals in the refinishing business will let us know from time to
time what they think.
B. Cook, executive producer of Antiques Roadshow,
has been a writer and
producer at WGBH Boston for
32 years. His award-winning credits include
(1970-74), Arabs and Israelis
and Concealed Enemies,
Emmy for Best Limited Series in 1984. He also made a
few trestle tables back when 5/4 by
18 clear pine was $1.25 afoot.
This secretary, made by Christian Shively in about 1820, was
brought to the Indianapolis
tapings this year. It had been stripped and refinished by the
owner to remove paint that
had been applied many decades earlier. Appraiser John Hays
endorsed the need for
refinishing and complimented the quality of the work.
During the first
installment of Antiques Roadshows visit to New York City,
a lady arrived with this item, which she'd inherited from
her mother. Appraiser Leigh Keno had difficulty
containing his excitement while examining this rarity -a
table, circa 1765, with a refinished but badly alligatored top.
Estimated value: $150,000.
REFINISHING JUNE 2002