Editor’s Note: Questions often arise about repairing antiques. Does that automatically lower the value of the piece? Are there circumstances where restoring it increases its value? Worthologist Fred Taylor, WorthPoint’s American furniture expert, has the answers.
A middle-aged friend recently told me the story of her visit, with her sister, to her grandmother’s house. While they were there, they decided to help spruce up the place beginning with the old rocking chair in the front parlor. It had a broken rocker, the springs were falling out, and it was black with age and neglect. The sisters stripped it, replaced the broken rocker, refinished it and had new upholstery put on.
My friend said it looked really good after all that work, and she and her sister were so proud of themselves until a neighbor rained on their parade by telling them they had destroyed the value of the chair by doing all that work. I asked my friend what the nosy neighbor did for a living. Was he an antiques appraiser? A dealer? A knowledgeable collector? No, just a nosy neighbor giving unsolicited and ill-informed information.
One of the most common phrases in any conversation regarding older and/or antique furniture is “destroy the value.” This can be a valid concern in some cases, but it is not a universal truth that restoration or repair, if properly done, “destroys the value” of anything. In order to make the decision to embark on a restoration or repair project, you must determine two important points, current “value” and ultimate objective.
This Eastlake chair, circa 1880, has original finish, original woven-hair upholstery and is missing the top of the crest rail. Current value—essentially 0 by any measurement.
Determining the value of a given piece of furniture is, at best, difficult. For example, value to whom and value where? Prices in Detroit are different from prices in Birmingham, Ala., and Phoenix. And is price the best way to determine value? To a dealer, it probably is, but to a family member, it probably is secondary or not even a consideration at all. Value, like beauty, is highly subjective and sensitive to current styles and events.
For comparison purposes, three main categories of “value” might be defined as a) Market Value, b) Utilitarian Value and c) Sentimental Value.
MARKET VALUE—If you decide that monetary value or market price is to be your guiding principle in a project, then you have to get out in the market. Go to shops, and see what things sell for. Call a few reputable dealers, and ask if they have an item similar to yours and what it sells for. Read the newspaper classifieds in your area to get a feel for the market. Especially read trade papers that carry auction results from sales IN YOUR AREA. Check realized auction results on Worthopedia.
Above all, be realistic about comparisons. Be sure that you are comparing apples to apples in terms of age, provenance and especially condition. A rocking chair with a broken rocker is not worth as much as an identical chair that is not broken. If you are unsure about the details, ask someone. Most knowledgeable dealers are willing to help you determine value on an informal basis.
The springs are falling out of this Depression-era rocker. A good fix will enhance all of the types of value.
Time spent at the library or perusing the shelves in a good bookstore can often be very enlightening by helping you determine style and period for use in price comparisons, but use these facts only as a general guide. Remember that the market places a higher price on things that have intrinsic value due primarily to their age and rarity. Market price, by definition, is what someone is willing to pay for an object in a given time and location, NOT what is listed in a so-called “price guide.”
UTILITARIAN VALUE—If the piece is not old or rare, it still may have significant value based on its utilitarian functions. For example, a Colonial Revival china cabinet from 1935 may not have the intrinsic collector’s value of, say, a Georgian breakfront, but it will serve as a place to display your cut-glass collection as well as or maybe even better than a brand-new curio cabinet from the local furniture store, provided, of course, that the older cabinet is in good working condition and the finish is decent. In addition, the Colonial Revival piece has already proven itself to be durable by surviving 70-plus years so far, and it probably will last a good many years yet, and someday may even attain some collector’s value.
Another popular item in this category is the armoire converted to an entertainment center. As armoires, few pieces have much collector’s value, but when conversion is completed in a craftsmanlike manner and no great violence is done to the piece, the utilitarian value is actually enhanced by finding a new use for an old piece. If you have to do some restoration work on a piece in this category, you probably will not reduce the value at all but rather enhance the utilitarian value in the long run if the restoration, including refinishing, is well done.
Almost any repair would be better than this train wreck.
SENTIMENTAL VALUE—Going back to the opening paragraph about the sisters, why did they spend all that time and money on a broken-down chair? For the market value? For the utilitarian value? Probably not. They did not intend to sell the chair, and there certainly were other chairs in grandma’s house. They did it for the sentimental value of the rocker. Grandma probably remembered the chair when it was new, and it looks that way again. The sisters will always have the chair to remember grandma by and their time together working on it. What is that worth? It’s priceless. Sentiment is a very expensive hobby.
– Fred Taylor is the American Furniture Worthologist and an expert in furniture restoration. He’s published numerous articles on antiques on WorthPoint and in “Antique Trader,” “Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine,” “Northeast Magazine, “Victorian Decorating and Lifestyles,” “Professional Refinishing” and “The Antique Shoppe Newspaper.” Read more about Fred on his Worthologist profile, and check out his book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” and Fred and Gail Taylor’sDVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture” on their very informative Web site, Furniture Detective.
Other articles by Fred Taylor:
Identifying Wood Species—Part I
Identifying Wood Species—Part II
Identifying Wood Species—Part III
A Fortune from the Kitchen Table
Understanding Antiques—the Arts and Crafts Movement
Understanding Antiques—the Arts and Crafts Movement Pt. 2
Antique Seating: What Are You Sitting On?
Dating Antiques? Check the Joinery
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