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Refinish Your Antique Furniture? It’s a Question of Value

by Wayne Jordan (03/20/13).

This pub table looked like a hopeless case until the folks at Rosewalker Design Project, a decorative arts company based in Nashville, Tenn., got their hands on it. With half the table restored, it makes an excellent “before & after” restoration example. What would you pay for the before half?

That crisp new $20 bill in your wallet is more valuable than the worn $20 you got as change from the convenience mart.

Don’t believe me? Next time you make a purchase, take note of which bill you are inclined to give to the clerk. Chances are you will use the worn $20 and keep the newer bill for yourself.

It seems that no one likes dirty money. There is an “ick” factor associated with it; no one likes to handle someone else’s germ-laden bills. Fresh, crisp new bills are perceived as being more desirable than old, worn bills. Consumers are more willing to spend worn money, spend it faster and are more inclined to gamble with worn money. Consumers prefer to keep new bills for themselves but are willing to spend them to impress their friends.

Such are the conclusions reached in a study by Theodore Noseworthy of the University of Guelph and Fabrizio Di Muro of the University of Winnipeg. These conclusions are published in their paper titled “Money Isn’t Everything, but It Helps If It Doesn’t Look Used: How the Physical Appearance of Money Influences Spending.”

The study followed participants as they completed assigned shopping tasks and gambled, both on their own and in the presence of their peers, using both new and used money. On average, participants parted with used money with less reservation than they did new money.

This antique chair from the United States Capitol is shown in a pitiful “before” and amazing “after” photos after being restored by Joe and Phil Termini of Termini Furniture Service in Gaithersburg, Md.

It’s also true that when it comes to making a purchase, appearance tops the list of consumer buying criteria. Consumers won’t buy something if they deem it to be ugly, no matter how useful it is or how great a deal it is. Appearance drives purchase decisions for both new consumer goods and antiques and collectibles. Collectors pursue their hobbies because it brings them pleasure, and much of the pleasure is derived from admiring their collection and showing it off to guests. No matter how valuable an 1860 American pedestal table is, if it’s an eyesore it will appear to be junk, and no one likes to look at junk.

Morris Holbrook, in his 1980 study entitled “Some Preliminary Notes on Research in Consumer Esthetics,” found that consumers derive pleasure from the beauty of a product without regard to a product’s utility. Consumers preferred to purchase products that fit aesthetically with other products that they own. Whether a piano, artwork, glassware or furniture, utility, age and rarity are secondary decisions when it comes time to buy.

As I read the above studies, my mind wandered to the ongoing argument in the antiques trade about whether restoring antique furniture ruins its value. How much value can an antique have if it’s ugly and no one wants to buy it? I couldn’t help but wonder how much of an antique’s value is derived from its appearance and if by simply improving an item’s appearance one can increase its value, other value points notwithstanding.

Antiques pundits regularly preach “condition, condition, condition” while at the same time proclaiming that objects in original condition are more valuable than identical restored objects. They have a point, but let’s face it: we encounter few such antiques in our day-to-day picking. Most of the antiques we encounter are well-designed quality pieces that have managed to survive the day-to-day rigors of family life. Many of them, in order to survive for decades, have been repaired or refinished along the way.

I suspect that many of the antiques that survived in “good original condition” were kept in rooms like my mother’s living room: The Room That No One Was Allowed to Go Into.

At the risk of alienating a few of my colleagues, let me state that I am all in favor of restoring worn antiques, and I believe that doing so increases their value. Both my personal experience and the above university research indicate that restoring objects in shabby “original condition” will increase their value rather than lessen it.

Why? Because an object is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and if people are willing to buy it because they think it’s ugly, then the object has no monetary value. I don’t care if it’s a Philadelphia Highboy, if it’s got insect damage, split wood and a faded finish, I’m going to recommend that it be restored.

Of course, I wouldn’t let just any hack perform the restoration; such projects must be done by someone with skill and experience.

In a letter to now out-of-print “Professional Refinishing Magazine” in June 2002, “Antiques Roadshow” executive director Peter Cook declared that “well-conceived and well-executed refinishing and repair often increases the worth of just about any piece of old furniture. Exceptions are those rare (often museum-quality) items that have managed to survive in good original condition.”

It stands to reason, then, that antiques that have been “restored” by dealers or collectors in their garage don’t qualify as “well-conceived and well-executed repairs”. Howard’s Restor-A-Finish and the instant refinishers available down at the Home Depot are completely wrong for restoring antiques. Instant refinishers and polyurethane finishes, even when applied correctly, cause the wood look cheap and covered in plastic.

This armoire would have hardly received a second look before a restoration by Philip and Sons Furniture Finishing of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Leaving aside those rare items that “have managed to survive in good condition,” let’s consider for a moment exactly what constitutes a well-conceived and well-executed repair.

Restoration is well-conceived if it is a wise undertaking to begin with. If the item is genuinely valuable but shabby, restoration may be in order.

But just because an antique is old doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Antiques have both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Intrinsic value pertains to the item itself, including materials and workmanship. Extrinsic value pertains to rarity and demand for the piece. Here’s what this means in practical terms:

If an antique is old but very common, it’s probably not very valuable. Restoration will not likely raise such an item’s value very much and would be a waste of money. If an antique is rare but made of poor materials and is in poor condition, it’s probably not very valuable. Again, restoring such an item is a waste of money. However, if an antique is rare and genuine, and if it has superior workmanship, it may be a valuable collectible. If the overall condition is poor and the piece is not very attractive, then a proper restoration will make it much more appealing and therefore much more saleable and more valuable.

Well-executed means that the restorer has an understanding of the item’s period and the materials and techniques that were use at the time and the skills and experience to execute the repairs. Hippocrates’ admonition “first, do no harm” must always stay in the mind of the restorer in choosing materials and techniques. That means no modern glues, no modern fasteners and no modern finishes. Using modern tools is perfectly fine, provided that the results are consistent with original.

Most of us have passed up quality antique furniture because we thought that it was ugly and we were unsure of how restoration would affect the value. The admonition we thought we heard on “Antiques Roadshow”—that restoring vintage furniture lessens its value—can’t be taken out of context. When it comes to restoration. trust your instincts, ask questions and do a little research.

As a customer once said to me: “I don’t care what the table’s worth,… I want to use it now. Broken and ugly is still broken and ugly, and if it isn’t attractive I won’t have it in my home.” Value aside, it was appearance—not utility—that drove the restoration decision. I suspect that happens more often than the pundits are willing to admit.


Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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