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Using the ‘Old Stuff’ – Enjoy Your Treasures

by Fred Taylor (03/08/11).

This Victorian Moorish-style oak rocker has been in daily use for more than 100 years.

Two of the more common comments I hear about antiques, especially with regard to furniture, are along the lines of “I don’t want to do anything to destroy the value” and “I like antiques but you can’t use them on a regular basis or they will wear out.”

As Col. Potter of the TV show “M*A*S*H” would say—“Horse-hockey!”

Of course, you don’t want to do anything to destroy the value, but is it really “valuable” in the monetary/market sense, or is it just old, unusual and not being produced like that anymore? If you attend antique furniture auctions on a regular basis you begin to get a little better understanding of the value ascribed to most of what is represented as “antique” these days. Of course, the definition of “antique” is a lot more flexible than it used to be: so much so that some people believe that if a piece of furniture was made before 1960 it’s an antique. There’s no accounting for taste, and I certainly will not try to change anyone’s mind about their perception of antiques. But the real test is in the market. Is anyone willing to pay an “antique” price for a commonly mass-produced chair from 1960? How about 1950? Any takers at 1940? How about 1840?

The key point here is not just how old a piece is or isn’t, but does it have any value because of that age or in spite of it? If we are talking about an 18th-century Windsor chair in pristine original finish, then that is something to take note of because it does have value simply because of its age—and condition. Pristine, 18th-century Windsors are fairly rare and the market value of most of them reflects that.

This 1920s era mahogany and birch Rococo RCA cabinet is a fine-looking example of an early 20th-century entertainment center.

What about a mid-19th-century Windsor? It is way over 100 years old, so it must be valuable too, right? Not necessarily. By the mid 19th century most chairs, including Windsors, were factory made and were in fact mass produced. Are they valuable? If you like them they are, and there are some unique examples that are highly prized in the market place. But most of them have no real intrinsic value just because they are that old. Are they rare? Not so rare as ones from the 18th century. How about one from the 1930s? Even from this more recent era, a part of the 20th century, it is still older than most of the population of the United States. Does it have value just because of that? Probably not. It has value as a chair, not as a collector’s item and not as a museum piece, to be worshipped as a part of our past. Not to say that it shouldn’t be respected but it should be respected by its continued use in its original function rather than as a hallowed icon.

With only a little work and virtually no disturbance to the original cabinet it has been converted to more modern equipment to serve the same purpose.

And since it is a functioning chair with relatively no collector’s value, what value are you going to destroy if you do something to it? Since its only value is as a chair, are you going to do something to make it “not” a chair? If it needs a new coat of finish, go for it. That won’t make it less of a chair. If it needs refinishing, go ahead and do it and do it using materials that suit your situation. And don’t listen to that old naysayer who says you should never refinish an antique, but if you do it should only be finished in shellac. He may (or may not) be right about that, but he also may not know an antique from a collectible from a chair. Besides, if you want to use that chair in the kitchen and you have three kids and a dog, shellac is just not the finish for you unless you have a lot of time for care and maintenance. The general rule of thumb is that for 20th-century furniture, any properly done restoration will improve both the appearance and the current market value.

This table, made primarily of 18th-century English components, along with the period Empire sideboard and the Regency chairs are used regularly for family gatherings.

Too often collectors gets gun shy from all the advice they receive from so many “experts.” After a period of trying to “do the right thing” by their older and antique furniture, they get tired of the aggravation and long for the ease of care associated with Formica tables and brass and glass stands. That is not good for any of us in the antiques industry, whether we are buyers or sellers or both.

This Late Classicism sleigh bed, circa 1850, gets used every day, as does the 1930s Art Moderne chest of drawers and the 1900 Empire Revival night stand.

The same kind of attitude should hold sway in the area of repairs. If that Depression-era chair is loose and needs to be reglued, how long will you wait to find a craftsman who will take the time to repair it with hide glue so that it can be reversed at a later date? Are you interested in reversing the fix? No. You are interested in getting it fixed and getting it back in use before it breaks apart and can’t be fixed. And a Depression-era chair probably wasn’t assembled with hide glue anyway. Don’t be shy about using modern glue and modern techniques to repair what amounts to a modern chair.

If you take the approach that your older and antique furniture is there for your use and enjoyment and not solely there for the preservation of the past, you will be more inclined to use your “antiques” every day. You will enjoy them even more and will probably, in the long run, greatly prolong their useful life. Just make sure that you provide your treasures with care appropriate to the use such as regular cleaning and waxing, employing waterproof finishes on table tops and using modern upholstery materials and techniques to make your seating comfortable.

Use your antiques and take care of them and they will maintain their value in the process.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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2 Responses to “Using the ‘Old Stuff’ – Enjoy Your Treasures”

  1. sadie meyers says:

    Mr. Taylor – thank you so much for a great article. I look forward to reading your stories.

  2. How sensible. These things were made to be used; and unless they’re of museum quality they’re better off used and cared for every day. If they’re of museum quality they need to be in a museum. How silly it would be to own fine things and use schlock!

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