We don’t hear ‘How much is it?’ fractionally as often as ‘Is it in original condition?’ Presumably this is Les and Leigh Keno’s personal legacy, by way of the American version of ‘The Antiques Roadshow’, to all antiques dealers. Frankly, given the muddy appearance of many of the items over which some dealers and collectors wax eloquent, I now sometimes think French polishing has a lot to recommend it.
Not really… In fact, what the Kenos are trying to communicate is that original condition means that a furniture item has not been either altered or improperly restored. Pardon my Anglo-Saxon, but the vernacular term we use for bad restoration is ‘buggered’. This can mean, variously, a poor use of materials with, say, a plastic varnish applied over a proper shellac and wax finish, or a piece that has been completely stripped by chemical and mechanical means down to the raw wood, or ‘improved’ with the addition of marquetry and inlay where none existed before- or, tragically and too often seen, a combination of all of the above.
Frankly, our mantra is the littlest possible restoration is the best restoration. Certainly for English furniture, the quality pieces were meant by their makers to be shiny and brightly colored. Two or three hundred years of use and natural oxidation always do their work, and nothing, even under optimum conditions, will look exactly as it did when it first entered the dwelling of the original purchaser. We are, as we speak, working on the paint finish of a wonderful Regency period chair, whose original decoration is still largely intact- together with 200 years worth of furniture wax, soot, and poor retouchings. Even with painted furniture, the term ‘patination’ is frequently used, a catch-all meant to lionize rather than apologize for the effects of age. As I think about it, Keith McCullar’s birthday is coming up- I think I’ll tell him, by way of compliment on his natal day, that he’s becoming nicely patinated.
The point of all this is, despite the frequency of the query ‘Is it in original condition?’ the question rarely indicates what the buyer really wants to know- nor does it imply particular criteria for a buyer’s purchase. While we like minimal restoration, we also like pieces that show well. For an antiques dealer, there is just the slightest commercial imperative- we do have to sell something from time to time and pieces with a tired, ‘original’ appearance do not have much commercial appeal. This is the irony, of course- a prospective buyer might ask about original condition, but then actually find more appealing, to the point of purchasing, something with some restoration. There is nothing wrong with this because, when asking about original condition, what they really mean to ask is ‘Is this piece in serviceable condition, and how close is it to how it originally looked?’ When we acquire items for inventory, condition is critical as we want to accomplish any required restoration to put it in saleable condition without having to reinvent the appearance of the piece in our workshop. Consequently, when asked about original condition, we nearly always are able to respond- ‘We’ve had to do very little to it.’ This has proven to be a satisfactory response. In fact, our own rules about condition and restoration pretty generally accord with the vetting guidelines of the better antiques fairs: a piece must be substantially the same as when new- very little restoration, but not necessarily in unrestored ‘original’ condition. Further, a piece must also be ‘show worthy’, that is, of pleasing, saleable appearance. Maybe that’s what I’ll tell Keith on his birthday- that he’s passed vetting and is of show worthy appearance.