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Welcome to Grunge School: Where you Learn to Leave Original Surface Alone

Portrait of Edward Reed Dorr

Portrait of Edward Reed Dorr (1808-1880) Seated in a Fancy Chair, Auctioned for $886,000.

When you look for a new acquisition for your collection, do you seek out dusty and dirty objects with original surface or interesting patina? If you do, you’re not alone. The phrase “Grunge School,” describes this learned or acquired taste. There’s a sense of discovery and wonder when you come across a piece of antique furniture, a mirror, a painting, or almost anything that has been forgotten for a long time. Original condition and original surface mean an elevated value for most American antiques.

Consider the folk painting, Portrait of Edward Reed Dorr (1808-1880) Seated in a Fancy Chair, which sold at Skinner for over $800,000. It hung above a fireplace, and maybe the fireplace damper didn’t work very well, because the picture looked like it had been dipped in maple syrup. Still, everybody who saw it could tell it was going to be a dazzler. The composition and all the different elements—a boy, a dog, a decorated Windsor chair—singled out this painting as extraordinary. The fact that it had not been so carefully preserved, but rather exposed, added to its intrigue. If the same painting had been improperly cleaned or restored, it could have brought a fraction of the price.

When it comes to painted antique furniture, original surface is also important. About 90% of Windsor chairs that you see today are refinished, often with the paint removed. The chair makers used a variety of different woods for structural purposes, and never intended for anyone to see the wood—that’s why the chairs were originally painted. A Windsor chair with original painted surface and wear in all the right places, such as the back rail or arms, is worth dramatically more. Skinner auctioned a Windsor chair painted gray with white pin striping for about $80,000. That same chair refinished and without its paint would be worth one-hundredth that amount, or about $800.

Paint-decorated Pine Dower Chest

Paint-decorated Pine Dower Chest, Auctioned for $10,665

Over time, the original color of painted antique furniture can change dramatically from exposure to air, dirt, smoke, and even the oil from people’s fingertips. In fact, most so-called “black” Windsor chairs were probably originally green, but the green darkens with age instead of fading. People especially love “powder blue” painted antique furniture, which used to be much darker.

We recently auctioned a paint decorated Pennsylvania dower chest that is a light pink salmon color with accented moldings in dark blue. If you open the drawer, you can see that this chest used to be a dazzling bright orange. In a way, the salmon color is even more beautiful—and at least more subtle. The chest went for over $10,000 in an American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction. If it had been refinished, it could have brought maybe $500.

While you should never touch original surface, you can decide to get a piece cleaned to clear away dirt or grime. I like to leave this decision to the buyer. There are very good conservators out there who specialize in cleaning—not refinishing—original surfaces. Grunge School is about seeing the history of a piece on its surface. The particular patina or colors of an untouched American antique took years in the making, and I for one hate to see that washed away.

Have you ever refinished something you later realized you should have left alone?

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Grunge School: Where you Learn to Leave Original Surface Alone

  1. 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, 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 where he ran the shop for a long-time major dealer. Unfortunately, this dealer had a habit in the 1960’s and ’70’s 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 O.K 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, etc., 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.

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