An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 138

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 26, 2021 - Issue 138

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

What does a finish have to do with patina? You would think that they are intimately related and in a way, they are, but they also have little to do with each other. This paradox is hard to explain simply because the definition of patina is always a personal one. (Most dictionaries ascribe patina as what happens to aging metal such as bronze or copper.) For example, I can take a piece of mahogany and "age" it so that it has a patina--one that I created and which is artificial, but one which will also appeal to someone who then calls it patina thinking, perhaps, that what I have done to the surface was done by time, not by my hand. At this point, you might ask, why, if you can create a patina, is patina such a factor in the value of an antique? It is a reasonable question, because there is no systematic definition for patina--no way of truly knowing how a wonderful patina should look. In other words, you learn the definition from looking at surfaces--there is simply no other way. So why does the finish matter if that is the case?

Proper (re)finishing an existing surface, particularly on shellacked surfaces, is always about conservation--retaining the bond that exists between the wood and the finish and never stripping the old finish. A good finisher can protect patina without any problem whatsoever since shellac dies from the top down, meaning that careful cleaning and a little polish is usually sufficient for brightening a surface. The process is similar to what a zamboni would do on an ice skating rink. The problem, of course, are things like black marks, which usually start out as white marks made by moisture rings from drinking glasses which will, in time, discolor the wood below it and turn it blackish. These are a bit harder to get out, but before you think you should eradicate the black mark, assess the surface and ask yourself if it isn't the kind of surface that looks fine with a black mark? This is not heresy, just common sense. Certain surfaces look better wth wear. Eight days ago, I had dinner on a thirty year old elm table top which had been infrequently maintained, usually just with wax. Elm ages very well and this top looked considerably older than its age and was very good looking.

Not every piece, particularly high style mahogany furniture should be treated this way. As a rule, however, this furniture, unless some nudnik stripped the surface, will have had a very good finish right from the start. Ideally, thereafter the finish will be cleaned and polished every now and then, depending on how much it is used, and voila, after a number of years, you get patina! Of course, I am skipping over a lot of steps in the life of a piece of furniture, where the piece lives--is it in direct sunlight, how it is used, how it has been looked after, etc. In regards to how pieces are looked after, the Sack brothers of Israel Sack, the legendary American furniture dealers) told me how their father, a cabinetmaker and not a finisher, advised Mr. Dupont of Winterthur to slather a mixture of oil and turpentine on his furniture, eventually destroying finishes and turning the timbers quite dark. Sack had no idea how to use the cleaning solution and he didn't advise Dupont's servants how to use the solution he suggested, which is a standard tool in the finisher's toolkit. What he didn't say (or know) is that you need to get the furniture clean and dry by wiping off the cleaning solution after removing any dirt, wax or grease and then use some polish or wax. (The furniture at Winterthur is quite dark, still.)

The last word on patina--do not strip a surface unless the world has fallen off its axis. When you have looked at a great many surfaces, you will begin to see what patina is and you will understand that benign neglect is better than obsessive fastidiousness. And I have to add, a great patina is truly memorable. I can tell horror stories galore about stripping--I once purchased a great tripod table that had been dipped in caustic--the wood of the table was mahogany and caustic turns mahogany purple. The hapless refinisher didn't know how to neutralize the caustic so hoped that the client wouldn't notice anything and spray finished the surface while it was purple. I saw the table at Sotheby's and realized what had happened and bought the table, stripped it (again) neutralized the caustic and got a fairly nice nut brown color back. The table had some faint black stains which I left alone. I sold the table for about 20 times what I paid for it to another dealer. I recently saw the table in an English dealer's catalogue. I bet that table would have been even better had it never been touched. I'm just happy it has a chance to start developing a new patina. Wish I could say the same for myself.