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Should Art & Antiques be Restored or Not?

German two door, 18th century painted pine wardrobe

German two door, 18th century painted pine wardrobe

To Restore or Not Restore? That is the Question

When is restoration of antiques and art justified and when is it vandalism to destroy the marks of history and to replace them with a modern sheen that completely destroys its original character? This is the question posed by Richard Philp, a well respected and long established art dealer based in London.

Have you ever been to an antiques fair and seen a beautiful desk or table in pristine condition? The top has a shine to rival any mirror. It is impeccable - but that is the problem.

The desk or table might be 18th or 19th century and it obviously has not survived the years without a scratch or other mark so it must have been 'restored'.

Why do Dealers Restore Art and Antiques?

A Distressed (damaged) Antique Armchair Copyright 2004 Carol Fisher

A Distressed (damaged) Antique Armchair Copyright 2004 Carol Fisher

An unrestored antique chair I saw at an antiques fair in south-west England.

The chair in the picture above is completely unrestored. It was at antiques fair event attended by many antique dealers looking for new stock to buy for their own businesses. At a fair like this, items are usually priced competitively and sold to dealers with a wealthier clientele than the ones who sell at the fair.

Art and antiques are often left unrestored by these dealers because trade customers usually prefer to use their own restorer. Not restoring pieces also keeps the price down because they haven't had that additional expense.

As an excellent item moves through the trade to the top dealers, it reaches those who sell almost exclusively to very rich private customers buying for their own homes. Many of these people want to buy things in pristine condition. A few might prefer an antique or piece of art with signs of age but the top dealers know their customers and what they want to buy. When they find something they know one of their customers wants, they will then decide whether to restore it or not and the extent of restoration that will be done.

Other dealers specialise in selling restored pieces. I used to go regularly to the Olympia Fine Art & Antiques Fair in London. On one visit I saw an early 19th century long table. It was so over-restored that it looked brand new. The dealer still sold it even though it no longer looked like an antique.

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    Renovation, Restoration, Preservation, Conservation - What do these words mean and what conditions and responsibilities do they engender when used in connection to furnishings, art objects, environments, and architecture.
Mural in distressed state in Uberlingen, Germany

Mural in distressed state in Uberlingen, Germany

Books about Restoration

Richard Philp and the Committee Chairman

Richard Philp recalls a conversation that took place at a prestigious London antiques fair. It was on the subject of a 15th century Milanese black chalk study of the Angel of the Annunciation that he proposed to have on his stand.

The vetting committee chairman said, "What would the press say? It's simply not fairworthy. No, we cannot possibly allow that work in our fair. Just look at the condition - it's damaged; it's got tears; it's got creases; it's got smudges...."

"OK," replied Richard Philp, "There is no problem, I know an excellent laundry in Westbourne Grove, they will be more than willing to dry clean, press, iron, blow dry and bleach it. In fact, for a tenner, they should be able to make it brand spanking new."

"There's no need for sarcasm, Richard," said the chairman, "we are simply saying..."

"I know what you are saying, but frankly I don't think this fair is the place to conduct a conversation in any depth on the subject of dysfunctional angels. However, if it will make you all feel better I shall call Hugo Chapman, curator of Italian drawings at the British Museum," said Richard.

Hugo Chapman's opinion was quick and decisive.

"Richard, do not be vanquished," he said, "hold your head high. The drawing is beautiful, it is wonderful; it is in a condition we would expect for a work of this date. In fact, similar to many of our own drawings of this period."

Restoring a 300+ Year Old Masterwork

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Antiques are Old Friends

Remember that the most valuable antiques are dear old friends

— H. Jackson Brown, Jr

The Charioteer of Delphi, dating from about 470 BC, which is missing one arm.

The Charioteer of Delphi, dating from about 470 BC, which is missing one arm.

Respect for the Spirit Within Art

Richard Philp asks why do we have to sanitise, cleanse and reinvent paintings and drawings? He argues that 18th and 19th century rebuilding of antique sculpture is now stripped away to reveal the original work so why should we deal differently with 'flat' art?

'Inua' is an Inuit word for the 'spirit within'. Richard Philp believes that we should have an equivalent word to encourage us to respect the art of the past with all the imperfections wrought by time.

He wants people who love the art of the past to join a war of words with those puritans and do gooders who can't wait to cleanse art of its accumulated crusts, patinas, blemishes and wrinkles. He argues that art, just like the rest of us, should be allowed to age gracefully.

There is no doubt in Richard's mind that the 'new conservationists' represent a resurgence of the puritan mind - a new fundamentalist approach to art dealing and collecting. They over-clean, retouch, over-varnish and over-frame. Marble, stone and bronze sculptures are sandblasted and bombarded by lasers. 18th century English mirrors are stripped and totally regilded, furniture is stripped back, over-restored, re-upholstered and overpriced, he believes.

The current fashion for stripping age out of houses is another fashion Richard deplores. He thinks that when this is done the house becomes sanitised with any sign of age obliterated and all its history forgotten.

Distressed Antique Furniture

Chinese Furniture from the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) with some damage. Would you have this restored?

Chinese Furniture from the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) with some damage. Would you have this restored?

'A Noble Wreck in Ruinous Perfection'

He finds it a paradox that art from antiquity up to the medieval period is often protected from the scrubbers' tools, whilst art from later periods can fall victim to them with impunity. Nobody would scrub the patina and crust of ages from ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian sculpture and tribal art is more valuable when the original surface is retained.

Richard Philp suggests that a line from Byron, 'A noble wreck in ruinous perfection', should be taken as a motto by conservationists. He goes on to say, "I am not advocating that we stand back and watch our history collapse about our ears but I think it's important that we differentiate between conservation and restoration. To restore is to change, to take away any remnant of original meaning, to impose our latest, often untested ideas on an early work of art." In contrast to the 'new conservationists', real conservationists do not endeavour to alter the original object, the aim is to preserve it and some aspect of its intrinsic value not to impose on something from the past their own ideas of what is currently fashionable.

The Richard Philp Gallery specialises in early portraiture, old-master drawings, Medieval and Renaissance sculpture, antiquities and 20th-century British and European drawings - an exciting amalgamation of periods and cultures.

Restoring Antique Furniture - Good Restoration Can Extend Its Life

Not all restoration is bad, some is essential if a piece of antique furniture is to be preserved and to continue to be useful.

Most furniture is made to be functional, some pieces are made to be decorative too. Good, sympathetic restoration can mean that useful and decorative furniture can be used for many years, maybe even centuries, after they were made.

I have to say that it is never a good idea to have a go at restoring a valuable piece of furniture unless you are an experienced and skilled restorer.

How to Choose a Restorer of Antiques

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Restoration of a Statue and Painting

© 2009 Carol Fisher

What are your thoughts on the the subject?

Carol Fisher (author) from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on December 09, 2011:

@cdcraftee: I'm glad your chair retains its charm. That's the difference between a good restoration and a bad one. It's the difference between getting an unsightly bump removed from a nose and having a major facelift which erases every line and all the character from someone's face. If you still love the other chair the way it is, why change it? You're right, let someone else make that decision in many years time.

Christine Larsen from South Australia on December 08, 2011:

We are so lucky to have a friend who restored a bosun's chair for us - whilst retaining all it's charm, wrinkles and all. And now he says, to let it 'mellow' with the wear and tear of using it daily...and it is, most beautifully. We can compare it to its partner, who has not been restored, but we believe to be even older, with the seat worn down to the pattern of people's legs and bottoms. A stripback of just part of the build-up of years of polish, and just 'living' would enhance this chair - BUT - I'm too afraid of losing its soul. Whoever inherits it can make that decision - I'm having my joy in my choice and continued oiling, right now!

Lovely lens Stazjia.


Carol Fisher (author) from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on March 16, 2010:

@Sylvestermouse: Thanks very much for the blessing, Cynthia. I suppose I believe it's better to restore things than throw them away (obviously you wouldn't do that) so, if your table is more usable now, then perhaps it's just as well you had it restored. I expect your grandmother would be delighted that you are still able to use her table. You can imagine her using it perhaps in the same or a similar way to you do now.

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on March 16, 2010:

This is indeed a touchy subject and I have heard countless arguments about it over the years. I recently took an end table that was my grandmothers and I had it refinished because it looked ratty and I wanted to really be able to use it. It took over 2 months but when it came back home, it was beautiful. Sadly, it is now missing the "marks" of the past. No question it is prettier to look at, but I wouldn't do it again. In a strange way, I feel like it removed my grandmothers hand prints. Angel Blessed!

Carol Fisher (author) from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on March 16, 2010:

@rewards4life info: I'm glad you like it, David. I agree that most antique chairs should be restored to make them usable, otherwise there's not much point having them. :)

rewards4life info on March 16, 2010:

Restore, if you cannot use it without it. We started collecting antique chairs some while ago, and even with a bit of ware they look gorgeous. Lovely lens, Carol. Thanks for sharing =)

ratso on June 22, 2009:

This is a question I always asked myself, since I have both restored and left unrestored old furniture. Great lens 5*

Sojourn on May 01, 2009:

You make wonderful and accurate points. I enjoyed the background glimpse into the art fairs and dealer network. Great job!

Mihaela Vrban from Croatia on April 29, 2009:

Agree with both of previous comments! And with blessing also! :) Adding another one! Good job Carol!

ctavias0ffering1 on April 29, 2009:

Restoration is one thing, over-restoration is quite another. I have to agree that restoration is a good thing as long as it is carried out sensitively and respects the age and history of the object. What ticks me off is, as Laniann has said, attempting to make an antique or vintage item look brand new. If you want an antique you want the air of use, the patina, years of its life which are destroyed by over-restoration. That's why I recommend on my vintage and antique dollhouse collecting lens that people should not try to restore a dollhouse themselves but leave it to the experts who know what 'honest' condition is. 5* and a sprinkling of Angel Dust for an excellent lens

Laniann on April 29, 2009:

I don't like it when a piece is restored and given a high gloss (it looks brand new) - the piece has changed. I prefer a natural look. I understand some pieces need something to prevent their deterioration and should be used, - the conservation shouldn't change the original work. Very informative and well written lens. 5*s

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