Friday, October 9, 2009


We do a lot of antique restorations at C. Mariani.

Maybe 1000 per year, involving everything from a Sevres vase thrown at a philandering husband to an exquisite little music chair flattened by some tub-of-lard who dozed off during a recital. The latter actually happened to this chair (it came to us like a pancake) and look at it now:

Museum quality restorations, like those that we do, increase the value of an antique and return it to its original beauty or at least a period-appropriate approximation. Try saying "appropriate approximation" ten times-it makes you dizzy.

The problem in our business is that most "antique restorers" are just CLOWNS who "restore" a piece by stripping it of its patina and applying a brand new finish. And VOILA: instant garbage.

And this is why when you watch Antiques Roadshow, the experts always tell the toothless West Covina hausfrau "not to touch it" and just leave it, damage and all. The Roadshow experts know that 99% of folks don't have access to expert restoration resources and that the piece would be destroyed by local refinishers (or the hausfrau's all thumbs "handyman" husband seen here):

But what is a "professional" or "museum quality" restoration? Well, it's many things:

1. First, it's REALLY expensive (our minimum charge for any restoration is $1,000 and our fee can climb to over $100,000, depending on the piece).
2. Second, it's done by someone who knows the materials, methods, techniques, and styles that were commonplace when the antique was first built. That someone is a specialist in the specific realm of the damage: there are carpenters, finish restorers, carvers, leather experts, painters, gilders and the list goes on. That's why we have 33 artisans on staff. No one person can do museum quality restoration in every specialty.

3. Being knowledgeable about historical material is critical when it comes to everything from restoring paintings to restoring a veneered parcel gilt commode. For example, in the case of an 18th century parcel gilt and marquetry commode, we'd use a minimum of three kinds of glue: fish glue for structural repairs, hide glue for veneer repairs and a rabbit glue for water gilding. It's like life with Denise Richards: It's Complicated.
4. At the end of the day, a successful restoration looks and feels like it never happened. That's the mark of an expert.

But what if you can't afford a $1000 repair and a piece of satinwood veneer has "popped" (the word we use for veneers that lift over time as they tend to do) on your side table?? The answer is leave it alone until you CAN afford to have it restored properly.

But what if you're an obsessive/compulsive who simply can't stand to walk by this small imperfection on a daily basis. My best advice is to get a good therapist. But if you can't control yourself and MUST GLUE the piece back, do it with Elmer's white glue. Why? Because it's the easiest one for professional restorers to remove when you get around to fixing it properly.

Under no circumstances should you use any of those modern glues (like Super Glue, the one on TV showing the construction worker gluing his hard hat to an I-beam with one drop and then immediately hanging from it in mid-air). Those glues are meant for lunatic construction workers who want to risk their lives-NOT YOU AND ME. Epoxy glues are permanent and will make your damage worse. And this includes Gorilla Glue and Krazy Glue as well. Just say no when it comes to using them to restore your antique.

Other factoids on keeping your antique in great shape:
  • Only use a beeswax and turpentine paste wax to polish and protect from water as needed
  • Dust or clean using a damp and soft cloth; don't use wool as it micro-scratches the finish; dry with another soft cloth
  • Keep the piece out of direct sunlight; if you must keep the piece exposed to sun, rotate it periodically every six months or so in order to even out the inevitable fading
  • Move your antiques with care: pick up objet d'art from the bottom; never drag antique legs across the floor; don't pick up antique armchairs by the arms; don't tilt back on any antique chair (this one stunt practically keeps our restoration group in business); and don't lift an antique from its side handles (they are often decorative and cannot withstand the weight)


Michele from Boston said...

Gee Buzz, I learn SO MUCH from you and your firm. I just love the blog postings.

sally swing said...

Thanks for the great info...protect us all from superglue!

GrannySmithGreen said...

Buzz= an antiques best friend!

Such great information! Have you ever thought about a "stump the antiques guy" q and a type post? I'm full of questions if you're game!

Thanks for the super, always informative post.

Unknown said...

Michele, Sally and GSG,

Thanks for the kind's great to know that you're following my blog and learning about antiques.

A "Stump the Buzz" post would be fun...lemme think on that the meantime, feel free to ask any question by email and I'll do my best to answer it!

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Unknown said...

I'm a fan of Antiques Roadshow. Leslie and Leigh Keno describe furniture as if they're describing a beautiful woman and with about as much enthusiasm. An editor of a now defunct professional restorer/refinisher magazine contacted the executive producer for Antiques Roadshow concerning the perception about restoration they've created. Here's a link to the response for anyone curious:

That being said, I wouldn't trust my valued item to someone that isn't an expert.

trouvais said...

Hi Buzz. Is there a point at which an antique is so altered that the value is down to a decorative item? I have a signed 18th c canape....but it was missing an arm and 1/2 a back leg, damage to the flowers at crest.Though the piece had been bought in good condition in France, it had been virtually destroyed going through customs. I fell in love with it and bought it for nearly nothing, then found someone in SF to re-carve an arm, repair back leg and flower. I would actually love a lighter finish, it is so dark that you can hardly appreciate the floral and ribbon detail. With all the reconstruction...has the antique value been sufficiently reduced that altering its finish will not affect its value? Trish

Anonymous said...

Just popping in to say nice site.