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What Role Does "Condition" Play in Purchasing Antiques?
 

From the (antique) desk of Michael Markley...

 

 

 

As an antiques dealer, condition is paramount in my mind for what I sell as well as what I buy.  What follows are some of my thoughts on condition and what our clients should keep in mind when deciding to purchase a piece of antique furniture.

Sincerely,
Michael Markley

 

 

I am often asked about the condition of antique French furniture in which a client is interested. I am often torn with conflicting emotions about describing every little mark, which some is relevant to some, and describing the elements regarding the piece that caused me to buy it in the first place. Condition is always important to me, just as it is for prospective purchasers. In trying to understand what matters to buyers (I'm one too!), I thought it might be helpful to put forth the criteria of condition into its proper place in the series of reasons why we buy.

While it may seem obvious just what antique furniture is, understanding its age has a lot to do with its condition.  I think it is important to clearly define what I am talking about. U.S. Customs rules declare that an antique is anything 100 years old or older. So that oak icebox from the 40's doesn't count. Objects that are no longer made and are old, but not 100 years old, are often considered "vintage." Usually these have faded from public view by virtue of  a change of style or taste, the most obvious being clothing and furniture. Objects less than 100 years old, but just considered old but not vintage would be items like bottles or telephone pole insulators. These are considered "collectible" and are not being produced anymore and are growing more rare, but did not fade away because of fashion but because of changing ways of doing things. They are just old. Their value lies in their rarity and the desire to own them. So 100 years old is the threshold; at least 5 generations must pass before something becomes "antique."  One hundred years is a long time and gives many an opportunity for furniture's condition to change.

European furniture at least 100 years old has survived at least two World Wars, as well as the less well known ones to Americans. War has taken its toll on furniture by completely destroying a lot of it, and by the secondary damage that results from conflict. Roofs collapse, because of bombardment, on tables ; water pipes and other liquids are liberated from their containers to splatter or soak chairs; furniture is consumed by fire to stay warm; hurried exits from combat areas, lead to a plethora of dents and dings.  These are but some of the kinds of damage war causes not just to people but to their possessions as well.

A corollary to war, is the even greater number of natural disasters, fires, floods, storms and accidents, to name a few, that have befallen, European furniture in the last 100 years. Most of these events were localized in countries and not well known to Americans, as we were coping with our own such events. The same kind of damages that war brings are also often the result of these disasters, both national, local and personal. Floods lead to furniture soaking for lengthy periods. with resultant warping. finish failure and dissolution of glues. Storms and fires often lead to hasty relocation of furniture with its attendant lack of concern for its finish and appearance, the idea being, to hurriedly preserving its value to its owner. Accidents lead to dropping of chests while in transport, or the process  of other objects breaking mirrors or smashing doors on cabinets.

Some of these events also intrude upon the integrity of furniture simply in their daily use in the home. Dining tables are today, and were then, used for other activities than dining, leading to dents, scratches and finish irregularities. Children often inflict their unique play experiences on furniture's finish and construction, just as today. Bun feet, sitting on a tile floor may get a regular dousing of mop water when the floor is wet-mopped, leading to rot and decay. Cigarettes, pipes, candles, lanterns and the like also hold out the possibility of burns and poor repairs. In short, 100 years allows a lot of time for regular abuse of these domestic items.

When speaking of natural disasters, one must never forget the effects on wood of wood eating insects, like termites, or the equally destructive tunnels in the wood caused by what many call "worm", but which is really a boring insect. These creatures usually work on the structure of furniture,  weakening it, but may also destroy decorative elements as well. Furniture also falls prey to dogs teeth, turnings providing a ready source of relief for teeth and gum problems. Rats, too, require regular gnawing to maintain their teeth, and do plenty of damage.

The burrowing insects damage is comparable to the damage brought on by what the English call "rising damp" and what we often call "dry rot."  Wooden furniture left to itself in damp conditions, attracts fungi that slowly bleeds  the wood of its strength, so that it is reduced to powder, or maintains its shape, but only so long as it is not touched. This condition sometimes occurs for years, before it is detected, and then the structure is compromised.

And finally, every time the furniture is moved, from one household to another; from a burning house to a cart; to avoid a flood; whatever the need, the people doing the moving are not always as respectful of the item as is its owner. They may well have been in a rush as well, especially if the nazis are over the hill, or the river is rising. For economic reasons, maybe the movers were not trained how to take a large buffet apart, so in desperation, a hammer may have been used.

The results of these occurrences, are the "life marks," the evidence of what the furniture has been through, yet survived. In an earlier time, most furniture was functional and its appearance was not much of an issue. As the middle classes grew, they entertained and sought the additional status that more ornamental furniture bestowed on them. This is the furniture I am concerned with. There were repair specialists, usually the makers as well, who were engaged to perform their magic on the damaged items. Then, as now, the techniques used for repairs were proprietary secrets, usually learned from an apprenticeship that were not known or even interesting to the owners. All they cared about was how it came out. In many cases repairs could have been performed with different woods, their difference being concealed with a good concealing finish. Damaged carvings may have been similarly repaired using a softer wood to speed duplicating the original hard woods in the carving; or if one of two matching symmetrical carvings was missing or damaged, sometimes the other good one was removed as well as the damaged one, so that no repair was evident. New pieces of poorly seasoned wood may have been used to replace more seasoned ones that were damaged or missing with resultant splitting due to shrinkage. Original hardware went missing or was damaged and pieces that were not compatible or not quite so, were substituted with the result that their function was not quite the same, with unintended consequences. All of these kinds of repairs could lead to problems that would not be revealed during the life of the owner seeking the repair. It also occurred that due to financial circumstances, the damage was not repaired, but simply lived with.

We then come to the issue of why repair at all?  After all, this stuff is old, and old stuff shows signs of age, doesn't it?  But a "sign of age" may be intolerable to some buyers. It is not uncommon for buyers to have expectations of condition that are unrealistic. In fact, furniture from the 18th century that is perfect, should send up flags about why that is so, in light of use for 200 or more years. Maybe it was in a museum for that long, or maybe never used, or worse, maybe it's not really as old as it's supposed to be. Con artists have always existed, and maybe the marks of age were phony.

 Sometimes the ability of the piece to function as was intended is impaired. A table with a wobbly leg or an extension that doesn't work as it should, a chair with a rotten leg that will not support weight, a door that will not stay closed on a cabinet, because of missing hardware to latch it, all are some of many reasons for repair. Without these repairs, the items are functionally  useless, and might well be discarded or become firewood if not for repairs to restore functionality. And remember a decision to discard is often made in light of the styles that are popular at the time disposal is contemplated, styles that may become popular again.

The quality of repairs varies widely, based on economic conditions of the owner, and his expertise regarding repairs. Furniture that was once owned by someone of middle class status may have been bequeathed to a less well off heir. With fewer financial resources, he may choose to do the repair himself, or to use a less distinguished repairman. Not unlike today, the repair may be ill executed, or not conducted at all. I am reminded of the automobile that suffers the damage of a hailstorm, that does not affect drivability, but surely affects its appearance. For the owner covered by insurance a repair will restore its appearance, but with no insurance, driving it as it is, may be the only alternative. For those whose economic or aesthetic options are open, there are now, and always have been, top-notch repair people. I am reminded of a longtime Paris dealer, Perrin, whose merchandise from the periods of the Directoire, Napoleon III and Louis XVI looks as if it was just made. Whoever performs his work is extraordinary.

This restoration of pieces to remove any signs of age or use is most commonly thought of as the province of museums, but it is available to everyday people as well, for a commensurate expense. These shops use old woods, old, salvaged hardware and materials from the past to stay consistent in appearance, materials and quality. Where something cannot be obtained by finding old parts, they may  manufacture one using old techniques from drawings or documents from the period. And the labor to replicate, costly today, versus the past, matches the effort and skill of past artisans. Individuals who need these services are not in abundance, but they are very particular. Contrast this process with the individual who had an old armoire in 1899, and a piece of glued molding fell off. He chose to nail it back on, rather than gluing it. The result is nail holes that get covered up with wax and dirt and maybe filler over time, and a piece of furniture whose appearance is diminished, but maybe still beautiful, and always unique.

When the repair is performed has a substantial impact on the quality of the repair. Consider the molding in the above example. Suppose it is not nailed on quickly, but is lost before the repair is performed. The piece functions well, but its appearance is compromised. Suppose a dealer buys it one hundred years later and seeks to repair it. The shape of the molding is not available in a molding cutter, the aged wood is not readily available, the skill and the materials to duplicate the finish and the quality of labor to do all of the work is no longer available. Had the repair been accomplished earlier, there is little doubt that it would have been less expensive and more in keeping with the style and appearance of the original.

Over time the methods of construction and repair have changed considerably. My favorite example is in the plethora of exotic "modern" glues that are used today. Veneers were glued in place in the past with animal glues that are considered unsatisfactory today. What makes them unsatisfactory is their cost and their unsuitability for modern production methods. They are slow drying as well as expensive and have been largely replaced my modern contact cements, which are fast drying and relatively cheap. However, they are not reversible as are older glues. Hide glues will re-liquefy with heat and water, as if they are new, no matter how old they are. There is no such process for contact cements. These same glues were used for joints in furniture and allow for relatively easy disassembly and re-gluing to allow replacement of parts and restabilizing of a joint. There are so many kinds of glue available today, that it is easy to use the wrong one and create a mess that impairs either the appearance or the function of the piece being repaired. And in antique furniture, you may find glues or other materials that were popular at any time in the last 100 years.

Nails are another of the banes of repairers and restorers. Old European furniture was "joined" together with the wood itself, not with any mechanical devices like screws and nails. The ends of pieces of wood were cut and formed in shapes that interlocked with each other, which when glued and "joined" with each other made for very sturdy construction. These joints were made by hand, and are vastly superior to today's power tool created joints. And remember that when they failed, the glues that were used, allowed the joint to be easily repaired. Since the invention of the nail and screw, they have constituted a fast and skill less method of joinery. When there is no movement on the joint that they join, they are fine. But let it be on a chair's leg or a drawer's corner, and they will fail quickly and require another  repair using the original system of construction, but leaving the results of the failed repair.

The superficial damages of dents and dings vis-a-vis structural are probably the most common damage that one faces in the purchase of antique furniture. All of us know the damage done to contemporary furniture by the assortment of impacts we visit upon our own furniture. Most of us have never experienced the results of wood destroying insects or funguses on  our furniture, because we never have it all that long. Insects boring in furniture, and dry rot,  seem to be a unique problem of antiques since they are relatively rare today, due to pesticides and climate controlled housing. In the past though, doors did not seal as they do today, allowing the entrance of wood-eating insects, and the proper moisture conditions that allow for rot.  When the dent or ding knocks off the nose of the proud lion on your buffet drawer, it may be an aesthetic disaster, but does not damage its usability. But if insects have eaten the lower leg of the cabinet away, when the leg collapses from the weight of  Grandmother's china in the cabinet, it can be a disaster of a very different kind.

So when buying antique furniture what do you need to know in order to make a wise choice regarding the condition of the piece? The first thing that comes to my mind is to be certain the piece is suitable for its purpose. Can you sit in the chair? Is the table steady? This is pretty obvious, but there are a surprising number of people who just like the look of the thing, and its function is secondary. This is not a good decision. If the piece is no good for its purpose, it may well prove unacceptable for any purpose. Secondly, is the structure sound, i.e., can it be used for its purpose or just looked at. Weakened legs or feet, or supporting members can be the result of some of the factors I've discussed, and are usually difficult to replace due to the costs of disassembly and the difficulty of finding matching wood. If the table is to be used as a table, it better be sturdy, or perhaps you should reconsider its purchase.

A third item to consider is the dealer's disclosure of damage or weaknesses. Most dealers will be truthful on this because they do not wish to argue over a return of a piece that they will have to either repair, or on which they must refund the purchase price. The obvious dents and dings are not usually disclosed, as they are self evident. How well and why drawers slide and doors close, require the buyer to self test. If they work poorly, then it is time to determine why and assess whether or not they will be used enough to justify correcting their operation. In line with this disclosure is revealing any known previous repairs. Some will have been done well and may be unknown, but the bad ones need to be revealed, because they inevitably will need to be dealt with.

So after considering the specifics of many events, natural forces and events that may affect a piece of antique furniture, how do you balance all of these factors with one another and decide if the piece is for you? My most serious criteria is whether or not It is affordable. If you think it costs too much, its just not for you. Educate yourself in the prices of similar items in your locality, always comparing as closely as possible similar pieces. Ask the dealer to explain to you why its so expensive (or not). Verify his statements with other opinions or experience. Sometimes it is just necessary to realize that this is just not for you at this time. But always remember that wonderful maxim, that the best time to buy antiques is when you find them. Real antiques are unique and often sold when you decide later, that now you want it.

How unique is it? Consider the Savonarola chair. It is basically a chair with an "x" structure, that folds, a distant relative of the deck chair. They are made today and have been for over a thousand years. But each was different due to the skills of the carver/creator, the kind of materials available, and the predominance of certain styles at the time of its making, and its current condition. So while they all are Savonarola chairs, some are better ( a subjective decision) than others. Many French buffet cabinets were made in the renaissance style, but when you have seen a number of them, you begin to see that some of their makers were very creative, and others bear the mark of conventionality.

Does the piece suit my needs? Is it the style or the kind of wood that I prefer? Is it useful for the purpose for which it was built, remember the table must be suitable for its use as a table. Will it wear well as I age and my tastes change? Antique furniture is both a blessing and a curse. We are blessed with its beauty and élan as well as how well it functions for us, but cursed (?) by its long life, the vagaries of fashion and its relatively illiquidity.

Inevitably these are tough choices that are relevant to the condition of antique furniture. Condition should come in relatively early in the decision making process, and hopefully this essay has created a consciousness of the kinds and seriousness of poor condition and placed the proper emphasis on it. Dealers must make these decisions everyday using these criteria, and now you can too.

 

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