To Refinish or not to Refinish?

Is that finish on your antique table looking worn? Your mirror cloudy? Before you "fix" these problems, you may want to check with an expert because you may actually devalue your piece

By Lili LeGardeur
- New Orleans Homes and Lifestyles, April 2005


My mother meant well. But when she resilvered the back of the pier mirror that had long hung in our dining room, she erased the spiderwebs and snail trails of tarnish that had dimmed every reflected family moment I could remember.

The antique "Russian gold" finish she had applied to the curved wooden frame only made matters worse. In place of the crackled, "alligatored" finish and the occasional running split, there's now a contrived patina of modern gold leaf augmented with hints of red. But Mom was delighted with the result, and pleased to think that she had restored value to a worn family heirloom.

Blake Vonder Haar of the New Orleans Conservation Guild hears and sees - stories like this every day. The sad news, she says, is that restorations like this, which might satisfy modern tastes for clarity and smoothness, frequently destroy whatever value the antique object had in the first place.

That's absolutely true in the case of antique mirrors, which are one of Vonder Haar's own passions. The spots and clouds that diminish an antique mirror's ability to give back a clear reflection are exactly what old mirror aficionados warm to.

"We get asked a lot to resilver frames - and we can do it - but I tell people, 'You really don't want to do that,'" says Vonder Haar, whose Bywater workshop conserves antiques and objets d'art in a broad range of media, as well as mirrors and paintings.

The first reason is value: good antique mirrors, Vonder Haar points out, can sell for up to $100 a square foot and are very much sought after by collectors. The second reason has to do with the intrinsic value of a historic object. Erasing a mirror's marred surface is tantamount to erasing its story, and that's the kind of loss the conservator feels keenly.

"Unless it's something you just can't live with, you shouldn't resilver it," Vonder Haar says firmly, "If you can't live with it, it's best to sell it and replace it."

A case-by-case decision
This decision of mirrors reflects the core dilemma facing owners of antique objects, who often must resist the temptation to redeem an antiquity from the years of wear that actually give it its value.

Followers of the PBS series Antiques Roadshow know by now that the best advice, in dealing with any older object that may have value, is to leave it alone. Nonetheless, the Internet is rife with Web sites offering do-it-yourself refinishing advice on everything from furniture to porcelain. A search of newspapers and magazine articles published during the last 12 months yields articles touting simple, at-home refinishing techniques for amateurs and those urging a more cautious approach in equal measure.

The state of affairs makes John Keefe, RosaMary Foundation curator of decorative arts at the New Orleans Museum of Art, shudder. There are no across-the-board rules on whether objects should be restored or left alone, he says. Collectors value 18th-century American furnishings, for example, which have clouded finishes or other signs of wear, simply because that's part of their antique patina. French antiques of the same period are a different matter, however; collectors expect those to be pristine, even if that requires meticulously recreating an original finish.

The rule of thumb, says Keefe, is to get the advice of an expert, either a conservator with an established reputation or an appraiser certified by the American Association of Appraisers or the American Society of Appraisers. "If you have to refinish a piece, make sure you're in the hands of a skilled conservator and not the throw-it-in-a-vat-of-lye boys," says Keefe. The best conservators, Keefe says, will use solvents and polishes that can be removed. "Anything you do to any object in any medium should be able to be reversed," says Keefe. "If someone recommends something irreversible and drastic, that should be a red flag."

Conservators urge caution
"If there's some semblance of finish on a period piece, you need to find out if that finish is restorable or not," says Bobby Franks, owner of Uptown Restoration on Zimpel Street. Finishes that predate 1900 are generally more valuable that those from the 20th century, he says, though every piece, especially if it's a period piece, has a finish it was made for. If the original finish is gone, doing a proper refinish means finding a professional who can determine what that finish is - and, further, who knows how to make it. Whether it's a French polish or a particular kind of shellac, these are generally handcrafted finishes that can't be bought off the hardware store shelves, Franks cautions.

Like Keefe, Franks can readily think of instances in which the battered appearance of an item actually adds to its value. New England pieces from a certain period, he says, often had a black paint layered over the original red finish; the combined layers sometimes create a crackled, "alligatored" effect that collectors prize. Milk paint is another example of a prized finish. It dims with age, but painting over it destroys a valuable - and rare - survival of an pre-industrial design.

There are a lot of words that make Franks blanch, chief among them "polyurethane" and "belt sander." He's seen just about every kind of refinishing misstep, including the use of nails, super glue, liquid nails and wood putty to bond furniture elements back together. "It's mind boggling," says Franks, shaking his head. Homemade repairs like these generally add time - and expense - to a professional's refinishing work, he says.

Finally, "stripping" is a much-abused concept in refinishing, says Franks. "Every piece of furniture should be stripped by hand, and in many cases should not be stripped at all," says Franks. Furniture is glued, he points out, and the chemicals in dipping vats eat away at that glue. The safest way to clean a piece of furniture without altering it is to use Go-Joe, a commercial hand cleaner containing lanolin, or pure lemon oil. Never apply oil or wax to bare wood, says Franks; doing so will make it impossible for any finish, no matter how skillfully applied, to adhere to wood.

The state of silver

While he often suggests replating a piece of silver plate that's been damaged, Duncan Cox of As You Like It Silver Shop would never make that suggestion for Sheffield plate. That's because the plating process used for Sheffield represents a moment in the late 1700s when a heavy sheet of silver was placed atop a sheet of copper and fused by means of heat and high pressure. That process, which was abandoned after the invention of electroplating in 1840, makes Sheffield a find for collectors, who value its high levels of craftsmanship.

"A lot of times you'll see old Sheffield pieces with copper shining through, and that's good," says Cox, who is also a certified appraiser. "You'll see pieces with the sterling wire that was used to attach the borders coming off, and you wouldn't want to resolder the wire and replate over it because it's a sign that it's Sheffield."

Cox doesn't have to deal with polyurethane, but he does deal with the effects of damaging cleaning solvents and lead solder. The latter has been used for centuries to repair silver, but it will fail eventually, unlike the harder-to-work silver solder that modern conservators favor. Removing the lower-melting-point lead solder, however, can be a nightmare, Cox says.

Sometimes refinishing can be just as advisable as completely restoring a piece to its original state. That issue came up for Cox just a few weeks back, when a collector brought in an old English epergne bought at a tag sale for repair. A close examination disclosed that it was sterling, not plate, and that it had been constructed with removable arms which attached to the body with number posts and pegs. The arms had long since been soldered to the body, and Cox suggested that they should be reattached in the current repair. But the owner opted to restore the piece to its original design, taking the view that it would then be of greater value should she ever decide to donate it to charity or to a museum. Soldering the arms would have lent the fragile sterling piece stability, said Cox, but the additional expense of recreating the post-and-peg design did in fact increase its value.

Seek a professional

Probably no one has seen more refinishing disasters than Vonder Haar, who recalls once removing birds that had been painted into a seascape with white-out and a Sharpie pen. From a statuary repaired with super glue to a painting backed with window screening and spackling compound, she's seen it all. Her favorite, she says, was an iron-on patch used to repair a hole in a canvas - the heat of the iron created a prominent bubble on the paintings front.

Even items that seem amenable to household cleaning methods, like glass, can call for specific techniques that address deposits that have eaten into the surface. And again, whether to refinish glass or retain its aged look is cause for a judgment call. Old glass, like old mirrors, has fans who will pay for an imperfect surface marked by age. In statuary, regilding a religious piece may be less advisable that allowing a professional conservator to clean it thoroughly.

"There;s not one way to do things," says Vonder Haar, who stresses that conservators take years of professional training to master techniques calibrated to different problems. "Every project has its own set of problems and issues."

Living with an antique, finally, may be living with something that's less than perfect. "I tell people all the time to live with the character of a piece, its mars and defects," says Franks. He sometimes turns business away, he admits, by dissuading customers from refinishing an item. "I don't want to do something that is going to destroy the value and antiquity of a thing. I see stuff all the time been spiffed up that should have been left alone, something very nice that someone has taken polyurethane to, and it can't be undone."


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