Is it Okay to Refinish Antiques? Will it Ruin the Value?
The only trade magazine for professional restorers/refinishers was "Finishing & Restoration"(*). Before it went out of publication, the magazine was host to a multi-issue debate regarding the wisdom of refinishing and/or restoring antique and older furniture. A number of professional refinishers and conservators shared their diverse points of view which covered the full spectrum from "refinish everything" to "refinish nothing."
The "refinish nothing" position mirrored the public's widespread belief that refinishing any older piece would greatly reduce its monetary value and should be avoided. As the basis for this position, people would (and still do) cite the experts on the television show "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS. It seems the show has brought about widely accepted understanding that it is unwise to restore/refinish almost any piece of old furniture.
The editor of the magazine, Bob Flexner, contacted the shows' producers and explained the impact it was having on the public's perception concerning restoring/refinishing older and antique furniture. Peter B. Cook, executive producer of the television program, wrote a response that was published in the June 2002 issue of the magazine. Here are some excerpts from the article (underline and bold added for emphasis);
The Antiques Roadshow Weighs In
"A while ago, we at Antiques Roadshow received a letter from Professional Refinishing editor Bob Flexner, pointing out that our apparent obsession (my word, not his) with 'original finish' has had the effect of misleading the public about what repairing and refinishing actually do to the value of furniture - most furniture, that is.
We're now in our sixth season of Antiques Roadshow on PBS... This means, of course, that there's a real premium on the accuracy, dependability and usefulness of the information we provide. ... I'd hate to think that we've created a subset of American furniture owners living in dread of a fatal financial misstep (though Antiques Roadshow is, after all, a show about value, including market value). ... Still, if I'm reading things correctly, it sounds as if Roadshow furniture experts are saying, by and large, 'leaving things alone is good, refinishing is bad.'
Understandably, our Americana experts on the Roadshow live for wonderful old pieces of furniture that have somehow survived in terrific condition - pieces not used too hard, left out in strong light for long periods of time or forced to survive a flooded cellar. Most old furniture, of course, doesn't come close to meeting those standards. On the contrary, most furniture has been well used (even abused), scratched, broken, and often repaired many times. How could such furniture not be improved by a good job of refinishing or restoring? ... A secretary, made by Christian Shively in about 1820, was brought to the Indianapolis tapings this year. It had been stripped and refinished by the owner to remove paint that had been applied many decades earlier. Appraiser John Hays endorsed the need for refinishing and complimented the quality of the work.
... So where does that leave us? Let the record show that Antiques Roadshow generally agrees with this notion: Well-conceived and well-executed refinishing and restoration usually enhances the value of just about any piece of old furniture. Exceptions are those rare (often museum-quality) pieces that have somehow survived in great 'original' condition. If we say or imply to the contrary, we should be called on it."
"Well-conceived and well-executed refinishing and restoration usually enhances the value of just about any piece of old furniture."
So that answers the question of whether it's okay to refinish antiques. But refinishing isn't always the best solution to make an older or antique piece of furniture look nice. The right solution depends on the condition of the finish along with what you would like it to look like and how you will use it. The next step is to identify and assess any damage to the piece and make a plan to remedy any problems. To get started, click on the "Repair vs. Refinish" link at the top left of this page.
(*) - formerly "Professional Refinishing"