With all the talk and information going around about whether to refinish antiques, it is safe to assume that some of it is misleading. While it is true that there are some antiques that should not be touched, those pieces are few and far between. The only way that 200 year old Queen Ann chest or Duncan Phyfe table can be worth a fortune is if it is in near mint condition. It has been said that less than 1% of the antiques in this country are of museum quality or mint condition.
Here’s a scenario that’s played out often in my years of refinishing for the public: A customer brings me a dresser that was her grandmothers and she wants so much to have it look nice. But friends and TV shows have warned her not to touch the finish because it will loose all of its value. I’m standing there looking at a dresser that has the old shellac or lacquer finish completely worn away in some places, scratches and stains all over the top, veneer is missing in a few places, or it has become unglued in large areas. Drawers are loose and the runners are worn down. Someone thoughtfully hammered nails into the joints to hold it together. The mirror is beyond hope (and yet someone has told her all she needs to do is have it re-silvered!).
This is totally bewildering to my customer. She can’t proudly display it in her bedroom or guest room. She has nothing to fear in refinishing it. Let me explain why:
First of all, it is neither in mint condition nor anything close to that. No museum would touch it. There is no value in it to speak of at the moment. It doesn’t take all of those defects to bring down the value, just one or two. How do I know this? I’m not only an antique refinisher; I’m also an antique collector. I have been collecting antiques for almost 40 years. In that time I have purchased some beautiful pieces that I thought were really old and valuable. Most of the time I would find out through research that they weren’t as old as I thought and that due to the collection of damages on them, they weren’t worth a whole lot more than what I had paid for them. Hence, my need to refinish. And here’s the value breakdown on Grandma’s dresser; you decide… In mint condition it may have been worth up to $1000. In it’s current condition it is worth less than $100. and can’t be used! If I refinish and repair it at an estimated cost of 500. to 700. it may bring the value up to the $700. or more range. At least now it has some value that it didn’t have before. And you have a beautiful piece of history that you are proud to show and tell about. But then you don’t want to sell her dresser do you?
As for re-silvering mirrors; no one does that anymore. That is pretty much a lost art except for a few people across the country and the cost is significant. There is absolutely no one in our area to do it and if you find someone, please send her or him my way. You can have the mirror stripped and a new one set behind it.
Another scene I’ve been through many times is with old upholstered furniture. Again it is the same situation where the piece is so tattered and torn, the upholstery is sagging, musty smelling, faded and stained beyond help you would not dare show it off. Most of the time, the frame is loose and if you tried to sit in it on a daily basis it would break. Customers often assume this is the original upholstery. It takes me about one minute to show them the multitude of tacks or tack holes underneath the cloth on the wood to reveal that this was not the original cloth. That still would not matter with the value in most cases. Even in great condition most upholstered furniture is not very valuable unless some famous craftsman made it 200 or more years ago. (With the exception of some Arts & Crafts pieces)
If you want to enjoy the piece, let a professional totally redo it. Remove all of that nasty fabric and stuffing with all of the little bugs and worm eggs in it, re-glue the joints, refinish it, and reupholster it. At this point it’s like a new chair and ready to use on a daily basis for years to come. It’s doing you no good sitting in your attic or basement.
Common sense tells us that the reason people have thrown out old furniture is because it became an eyesore. I believe that we should have the same opportunity to view our historical furniture in the glorious finishes that our great grandparents did. It’s great to be well informed but with a little common sense we can learn the value of enjoying our antiques rather than wishing that they were valuable antiques!
Mary Ann Gaddy, October 2001
Treasures Refinished, Waxhaw, NC