Don’t Touch that Table!

Don’t Touch that Table! 

By Patrick F. Cannon 

I’ve been watching Antiques Roadshow since it first aired in 1997. From time to time, I’ve also watched the British original when it has occasionally popped up on the Bravo or Ovation channels. It started in 1979 and is still going strong.

In case you’re not familiar with the format, people haul their (hopefully) valuable antiques and collectables to a local venue, where experts from various fields (furniture, art, ceramics, dolls, toys, etc,) either confirm or dash their hopes. Most episodes have a surprise or two, like someone finding an old picture in grand dad’s attic that turns out to be a Winslow Homer water color worth $100,000.

People will discover that some antiques are worth more when they look shiny and new (porcelain, for example), but that others had better show their age.

“This is a fine bronze, beautifully cast. But you shouldn’t have cleaned and polished it, for the market demands patina, and even though it’s by an acknowledged master, it’s only worth $10,000 instead of the $50,000 you could have gotten.”

“Can I ask? Was it refinished at all? Ah, I was afraid so. It’s a common mistake, unfortunately. If it were dark and dingy as one would expect after 250 years, it would probably fetch $500,000 at auction, but…”

If you’re a regular watcher, these quotes will have a familiar ring. I’m sure many viewers have looked at that old desk that Uncle George refinished for them a few years ago and broken into tears of regret. Oh my God, what have I done?

I suppose there are good reasons why the experts prefer the dingy to the clean. For one thing, it presumably makes it easier to date the piece. They like nothing better than pulling drawers out, turning things over, and muttering about oxidation, primary woods and the lovely gloom that generations of dirt and grime can produce. Being an expert on the effects that coal fires and candle smoke can have on finishes gives them an edge over the hapless layman, after all. And it’s certainly true that today’s craftsmen can produce superb fakes of anything done by masters of the past.

So, if you have an old piece of furniture or a bronze (or any number of things) and have had it cleaned , repaired or in any way refurbished, you’re probably sunk, even though it might look absolutely lovely to the uninitiated.

Why am I troubled by this? Probably because I find myself wondering what the original creator of the piece in question would think of today’s passion for dirt and grime. Would Thomas Chippendale really be happy to see a chair, upon which he lavished so much attention, now dark with the pollution of the ages, and with threadbare upholstery to boot? Somehow, I don’t think so.

After finishing the chair, he would have stained it in the shade he or the customer wanted, and then added some varnish for protection. If he came down from the cabinet maker’s heaven today and saw it covered with dirt and discolored varnish, does anyone doubt that he would be appalled? I should think he would immediately roll up his puffy sleeves, strip off the dirt and old varnish and restore it to its original glory. “Why,” I’m sure he would think, “would anyone want a dirty old chair?”

When an artist finishes something – whether painting, statue, chair or building – it seem to me that it looks the way he wanted it to look forever. While the artist may have had some vague feeling that nothing actually lasts forever, he is unlikely to lose any sleep over it, since life was and is short. He moves on to the next project and hopes for the best.

If you’ve been in any of the world’s great art galleries, you’ve surely looked at paintings so dark with age that significant details are no longer visible. I can assure you that the artist who painted them wanted you to see and appreciate the smallest detail. If they remain uncleaned, the artist’s intentions have been lost.

On a more personal note, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois, where I have given tours for many years, has the dining room table and chairs he designed for it. Some years ago, Wright’s widow, the exotic Olgivanna, donated the table and six chairs to the now museum. They were refinished to the original natural Oak shade. Later, two additional chairs were sent on permanent loan by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. They are as nearly black and they can be, standing in sharp contrast to the others. As the Foundation still owns them, their decision to leave them alone must stand.

If Wright would come down from Olympus (where he surely resides) and visit his old house, would he not say: “If I wanted those chairs to be black, I would have painted them black! They better be refinished the next time I see them!”


Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon


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