Should Art & Antiques be Restored or Not?
To Restore or Not Restore? That is the Question
When is restoration of antiques and art justified and when is it vandalism to destroy the marks of history and to replace them with a modern sheen that completely destroys its original character? This is the question posed by Richard Philp, a well respected and long established art dealer based in London.
Have you ever been to an antiques fair and seen a beautiful desk or table in pristine condition? The top has a shine to rival any mirror. It is impeccable - but that is the problem.
The desk or table might be 18th or 19th century and it obviously has not survived the years without a scratch or other mark so it must have been 'restored'.
Why do Dealers Restore Art and Antiques?
An unrestored antique chair I saw at an antiques fair in south-west England.
The chair in the picture above is completely unrestored. It was at antiques fair event attended by many antique dealers looking for new stock to buy for their own businesses. At a fair like this, items are usually priced competitively and sold to dealers with a wealthier clientele than the ones who sell at the fair.
Art and antiques are often left unrestored by these dealers because trade customers usually prefer to use their own restorer. Not restoring pieces also keeps the price down because they haven't had that additional expense.
As an excellent item moves through the trade to the top dealers, it reaches those who sell almost exclusively to very rich private customers buying for their own homes. Many of these people want to buy things in pristine condition. A few might prefer an antique or piece of art with signs of age but the top dealers know their customers and what they want to buy. When they find something they know one of their customers wants, they will then decide whether to restore it or not and the extent of restoration that will be done.
Other dealers specialise in selling restored pieces. I used to go regularly to the Olympia Fine Art & Antiques Fair in London. On one visit I saw an early 19th century long table. It was so over-restored that it looked brand new. The dealer still sold it even though it no longer looked like an antique.
Meanings of Renovation, Restoration, Preservation and Conservation
- Renovation, Restoration, Preservation, Conservation
Renovation, Restoration, Preservation, Conservation - What do these words mean and what conditions and responsibilities do they engender when used in connection to furnishings, art objects, environments, and architecture.
Books about Restoration
This is a comprehensive history on the way works of art have been restored and conserved. It is a book for anyone seriously interested in art and its restoration and conservation.
Richard Philp and the Committee Chairman
Richard Philp recalls a conversation that took place at a prestigious London antiques fair. It was on the subject of a 15th century Milanese black chalk study of the Angel of the Annunciation that he proposed to have on his stand.
The vetting committee chairman said, "What would the press say? It's simply not fairworthy. No, we cannot possibly allow that work in our fair. Just look at the condition - it's damaged; it's got tears; it's got creases; it's got smudges...."
"OK," replied Richard Philp, "There is no problem, I know an excellent laundry in Westbourne Grove, they will be more than willing to dry clean, press, iron, blow dry and bleach it. In fact, for a tenner, they should be able to make it brand spanking new."
"There's no need for sarcasm, Richard," said the chairman, "we are simply saying..."
"I know what you are saying, but frankly I don't think this fair is the place to conduct a conversation in any depth on the subject of dysfunctional angels. However, if it will make you all feel better I shall call Hugo Chapman, curator of Italian drawings at the British Museum," said Richard.
Hugo Chapman's opinion was quick and decisive.
"Richard, do not be vanquished," he said, "hold your head high. The drawing is beautiful, it is wonderful; it is in a condition we would expect for a work of this date. In fact, similar to many of our own drawings of this period."
Restoring a 300+ Year Old Masterwork
Remember that the most valuable antiques are dear old friends— H. Jackson Brown, Jr
Respect for the Spirit Within Art
Richard Philp asks why do we have to sanitise, cleanse and reinvent paintings and drawings? He argues that 18th and 19th century rebuilding of antique sculpture is now stripped away to reveal the original work so why should we deal differently with 'flat' art?
'Inua' is an Inuit word for the 'spirit within'. Richard Philp believes that we should have an equivalent word to encourage us to respect the art of the past with all the imperfections wrought by time.
He wants people who love the art of the past to join a war of words with those puritans and do gooders who can't wait to cleanse art of its accumulated crusts, patinas, blemishes and wrinkles. He argues that art, just like the rest of us, should be allowed to age gracefully.
There is no doubt in Richard's mind that the 'new conservationists' represent a resurgence of the puritan mind - a new fundamentalist approach to art dealing and collecting. They over-clean, retouch, over-varnish and over-frame. Marble, stone and bronze sculptures are sandblasted and bombarded by lasers. 18th century English mirrors are stripped and totally regilded, furniture is stripped back, over-restored, re-upholstered and overpriced, he believes.
The current fashion for stripping age out of houses is another fashion Richard deplores. He thinks that when this is done the house becomes sanitised with any sign of age obliterated and all its history forgotten.
Distressed Antique Furniture
The argument that Richard Philp had with the head of the committee is one that is at the heart of this book. When is restoration just a money making exercise which destroys the soul and meaning of a work of art?
'A Noble Wreck in Ruinous Perfection'
He finds it a paradox that art from antiquity up to the medieval period is often protected from the scrubbers' tools, whilst art from later periods can fall victim to them with impunity. Nobody would scrub the patina and crust of ages from ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian sculpture and tribal art is more valuable when the original surface is retained.
Richard Philp suggests that a line from Byron, 'A noble wreck in ruinous perfection', should be taken as a motto by conservationists. He goes on to say, "I am not advocating that we stand back and watch our history collapse about our ears but I think it's important that we differentiate between conservation and restoration. To restore is to change, to take away any remnant of original meaning, to impose our latest, often untested ideas on an early work of art." In contrast to the 'new conservationists', real conservationists do not endeavour to alter the original object, the aim is to preserve it and some aspect of its intrinsic value not to impose on something from the past their own ideas of what is currently fashionable.
The Richard Philp Gallery specialises in early portraiture, old-master drawings, Medieval and Renaissance sculpture, antiquities and 20th-century British and European drawings - an exciting amalgamation of periods and cultures.
If you don't have great works of art but simply antiques and collectables that enhance your home, caring for them and sometimes repairing them is essential. This book gives good, helpful advice about this. Just remember, though, sometimes a repair should be entrusted to an expert.
Restoring Antique Furniture - Good Restoration Can Extend Its Life
Not all restoration is bad, some is essential if a piece of antique furniture is to be preserved and to continue to be useful.
Most furniture is made to be functional, some pieces are made to be decorative too. Good, sympathetic restoration can mean that useful and decorative furniture can be used for many years, maybe even centuries, after they were made.
I have to say that it is never a good idea to have a go at restoring a valuable piece of furniture unless you are an experienced and skilled restorer.
How to Choose a Restorer of Antiques
- GMC - How to choose a tradesperson
The Guild of Mastercraftsmen gives guidance here on choosing a craftsperson for any kind of skilled work and restoration.
Should we restore art and antiques? - Vote Yes or No Here
Should art and antiques be restored regardless, what do you think?
Restoration of a Statue and Painting
© 2009 Carol Fisher