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Three Tales of Tragedy: American Antique Furniture Lost to Refinishing

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Welcome to Grunge School: Where you Learn to Leave Original Surface Alone.” Those of us who have been immersed in the antiques world our whole lives all know horror stories of wonderful relics that were lost to naïve or over-exuberant refinishing or repainting. Here is a story that was left as a comment on my blog post. It makes me cringe to read it:

The Cherry Sugar Chest and the Friendly Gesture

American antique furniture

This example of a blanket chest with original paint-decorated surface is Lot 441 in the October 30, 2011 American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction.

“Unfortunately, this reminds me of a very nice, all original cherry sugar chest I once owned. Being in the deep South, I was pleased to acquire it MANY years ago for under $100. It had nicely turned legs, great patina, a secret interior locking drawer, etc. The only problem was a missing breadboard end on the top. So, after some years I took it to a “craftsman” who had been in the antiques business for many years, and who ran the shop for a long-time major dealer. Unfortunately, this dealer had a habit in the 1960s and 70s of refinishing much of his furniture. Guess that’s why he had such an active shop. It was a much more accepted practice then and the public seemed to be OK with it. My craftsman friend had retired and ran a little repair shop of his own. I left the sugar chest with him to have a breadboard end created and then went to pick it up several weeks later. I nearly fainted and was momentarily speechless when I saw it. He proudly announced that because of our longtime friendship, he had refinished it for me… at “no charge!” What can you say at that point? He was taken aback that I obviously wasn’t thrilled. I was so numb with disbelief that I don’t even remember what I said. Needless to say, I never viewed the chest with the same feelings, and finally sold it rather than forever being reminded of this sad event.”

Don’t Buy That Queen Anne Dining Table

After I mourned the loss of another beautiful antique in original condition, I started to think back on other stories from my years as director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner. I remember one time at an auction preview, a woman asked me about an old Connecticut Queen Anne dining table that still had its original black painted surface. She wanted to know what wood the cabinetmaker had used, and was rather incredulous when I told her I thought it was cherry, but I wasn’t sure.

Despite my attempts to explain that the black-painted surface was quite extraordinary, she still didn’t like how it looked and thought the table should be refinished. Finally, I told her, “You don’t want this table and you shouldn’t buy it,” which might have slightly offended her. At least she didn’t buy the table, and to my knowledge it remains untouched.

The Perfect Family Heirloom

American antique furniture

This grain-painted chest over two drawers, lot 459 in the October 30, 2011 American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction, still has its original paint.

Another story that didn’t end so well was told to me by a late dealer I knew. He had gone to a furniture refinishing warehouse, and in the room where they dip the furniture in lye, he saw a mid-18th century Queen Anne dressing table. It had a fan-carved drawer, and original, untouched, red-painted surface.

He couldn’t believe someone would refinish such a treasure. He asked for the name of the people who had left it to be refinished, hoping he could talk them out of making this mistake by explaining the true nature of the piece they had in their family.

However, his comments to the owners fell on deaf ears. They thought the dressing table looked terrible, saying it was an heirloom that would never leave their family. The dealer then had the unfortunate and completely coincidental experience of going back and seeing the piece looking brand new.

Tragedies like that one still happen. Do you have a story to share? Leave a comment below.

Our next American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction will be on October 30th. Thankfully, there are still American antiques out there that haven’t been touched, and you can view them during our auction preview in Boston.

6 thoughts on “Three Tales of Tragedy: American Antique Furniture Lost to Refinishing

  1. Last year I was dating a woman and on one occassion when I was over her condo in Beverly, MA, she showed me a table with the top on one side completely loose from the base(skirt).
    The top consisted of two(2)boards with two(2)drop leafs. At some point, a bad repair was done, by drilling holes into the drop leaf instead of the top, thus leaving a space on top where the boards meet.
    She explained that it was found in the basement of the house from the prior owners. It had been there in that family since the turn of the last century.
    She told me that she was looking to sell it. She knew that I liked it as an antique and I offered her $100 because of its condition and she accepted.
    I took it to a man in West Gloucester, MA whom is retired and in his spare time restores antiques.
    I thought the table had an old surface and of Hepplewhite design with square tapered legs.
    The man in West Gloucester confirmed that it was a period cherry Hepplewhite drop leaf with the original aged aurface.
    Well, this story has a good ending…The aged surface was conserved throughout the repair. The table was returned to its original position, ‘top to top’, ‘leaf to side’. The holes were filled and veneered. The mortisse and tenon joints were reglued and a corner block was added with old, age-patinated wood. All original screw holes were aligned and attached on top and base with screws and glue blocks.
    I had my breakfast and have been typing this email on this very table.

  2. Was going to take a nap after reading this blog, but now too frightened to sleep .. afraid of the nightmares!! What stories. Such a shame.

    Conservation and restoration before refinishing everytime!!
    Thank you for sharing these comments.
    John Steffen. John Steffen Restoration. 262.742.2480

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  4. I love the antiques roadshow and I believe that it showcases some very valuable and rare antique items that we may never have seen if it was not for this program, however some statements made on the show have brought about an interesting discussion amongst the antique collectors community. Thank you for the good write up.

  5. I own a Flemish oak coffer or chest, made circa 1590-1610, according to Skinner auctions. The end panels are carved in the linenfold pattern. The front center panel is carved in a floral arabesque pattern, with some loss to the carving at the bottom. The two front side panels are carved in the Romayne style; a helmeted male head and a female head in profile, set into diamond shaped cartouches, surrounded by floral carving. The front stiles are also carved with vines, flowers, etc. The original snipe hinges were replaced circa 1900, and the single board lid – which split lengthwise, after being dropped repeatedly, had cleats attached to the underside around the same time. An interior till is missing, as is the lock, but the lock plate, with vaguely gothic style tracery, is present.

    In the 1990’s. the previous owners – who inherited the coffer from a grandparent – thought that it would be really great to keep their stereo equipment on it, and put the speakers INSIDE. They drilled holes in the end of the lid, and above the carved side panels to facilitate this! I swear that people who own antiques should be given an intelligence test. A 400+ year old chest treated this way? I was able to reasonably disguise the damage with stick wax, but am heartbroken. Early damage came from normal use, or from insects. But this? I don’t know if the topic of my post is strictly in keeping wth the topic in this thread, but it does touch on a lack of respect for things “as they are”, whether due to innocent ignorance, or abject dumbness.

  6. In the 1970’s, I visited a farm in Newbury, Mass., with a friend who restored antique furniture. The owner wanted him to look at a blanket chest – 18th century, that still had much of its original blue paint which had turned over the centuries to a sort of silvery-blue. She wanted him to strip it! To his credit, he refused and tried to talk her out of it. He visited her again a year later to look at another piece that she had, and told me that he saw that the chest had been stripped – and sanded – and polyurethaned with a gloss finish! Not surprisingly, in this same New England town, THREE early period houses have been demolished to make room for new homes, or a swimming pool. I believe in the principles of “private property”, but I also believe that antique furniture and buildings give us a sense of place and continuity. We all lose when “bad taste”, greed, or a societal/historical disconnect leads to the destruction of things and places that are part of our collective, cultural heritage.

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