HOME PAGECall us: 646 221 3712

Journal of the United Kingdom For Conservation

Ethical considerations of furniture restoration and the preservation of old finishes

In the last few years there has been a marked and gratifying improvement in the general awareness and attitude towards antique furniture. I have noticed that my customers are now much more educated in the the concept of minimal restoration and the prime importance of age, colour and authenticity.

The debate about how furniture should look and what ethics should apply to restoration has penetrated the restoration trade but it is only a small beginning and there is a paucity of information on the subject.

In the ever increasing number of books published about furniture restoration, there is usually only a cursory mention made of ethical considerations and reams about restoration techniques and methods.

Students fresh out of college often appear to have little idea or opinion with regard to conservation matters apart from knowing that 'you should keep a bit of age in if you can'.There needs to be a clerearer appreciation of the difference between conservation and restoration and the dangers of unecessary restoration.

The techniques of restoration are not always easy and take years to master but the critical decisions that determine how a piece of furniture should look are still at the mercy of subjective whim rather than strict criteria and it is time that dealers, restorers, collectors and casual buyers understood that antique furniture should look antique and not over restored. A simple test is to contrast much of the over restored furniture selling in shops to the furniture conserved in museums. In the former you are still iable to see rooms full of french polished and perfectly clean furniture that has been 'restored to its former glory' that could have been made yesterday. In the latter you will hopefully see furniture that has been left alone with its blemishes and original colour gloriously alive.

Furniture occupies a curious position in the general debates regarding conservation matters, uneasily straddling the divide between conservation and restoration. What is this difference?

With works of pure art the strictest ethical considerations regarding non-intervention can be applied and therefore we do not see missing faces replaced on statues or missing areas painted in on murals. With applied art forms such as furniture the criteria are a little different For instance it is generally appreciated that a chair functions better with four legs rather than three and that by restoring a fourth leg you are helping to conserve the chair. With only three legs it will keep falling over and suffer further damage. However although furniture is made to be used rather than simply looked at certain conservation practices should always apply and depending on the age, style and importance of the piece of furniture there comes a time when it is appropriate to do nothing to it.

It is now perfectly acceptable to have lots of age showing in Seventeenth Century and early Georgian furnitutre but too much later furniture is being overzealously repolished. One day this furniture will be three hundred years old and different standards of desirability will apply.

Before a chisel has been raised or a brush applied a piece of furniture can be condemned by the application of misguided or unethical technique. For the potential restorer of antique furniture it is important to have an understanding of these ethical considerations. In the years to come it will be those items of furniture that have been ethically and sympathetically restored or not touched at all that will retain their charm and value.

The restorer should always use procedures that are reversible. You should not deliberately fake