Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America -SEPTEMBER 2017

Is an altered antique really all that bad?

When we think of altered antiques, we usually think of furniture: items that have been repaired, refinished, cut down, or "married" (such as part of a highboy with a distressed lower body being separated from its original base and mounted onto some other chest of drawers).

Serious collectors frown on most such alterations. There's a lot of hype around "preserving original patina," for example, which means avoiding changes to the surface such as refinishing. But is this kind of alteration always a bad thing? If a table has been stripped and its top warped by time and the elements, where's the real value: in leaving it that way or refinishing it?

This Hitchcock candle table with stenciled top, c.1960s, is probably the oldest piece of furniture in my house otherwise full of antique and collectible "smalls." As with many vintage Hitchcock tables, the top finish is in decent though not pristine condition and not marred to any extent that I'd want to refinish it.

When changes are decried

The higher up one rises in the trade, the more likely antique furniture is to be found in pristine condition at an acquisition price that would be beyond dealers at the mid- and lower ranges of the trade, even if there's plenty of room in it for a dealer who would resell it for several thousand dollars.

Generally speaking, dealers at that level won't buy refinished items unless items in original pristine condition can no longer be found. But at the mid- to lower end of the trade, our hypothetical table can still sell – and it may sell a lot better refinished than it would if it's in a very grungy "as-found" condition.

Most dealers who value tall furniture with feet (cupboards, grandfather clocks, highboys, and the like) cringe at the practice of sawing off its feet to make it fit into a modern house space with a low ceiling. There is no question that the value of a valuable piece of furniture will be diminished thereafter for any serious collector.

While married furniture will be rejected at the high end of the trade, examples may be acceptable at mid- to lower segments. There, repairs will be better received if they are relatively seamless and made with original materials and workmanship (e.g. dovetailing in lieu of modern nails).

Not just a furniture issue

Generally speaking the market for married items in glass or porcelain is among decorators and people looking for decorator pieces. If a piece of glass or porcelain is already damaged, "upcycling it" in this way is not necessarily a bad thing. But hard-core collectors hate them, especially when they involve the destruction of pristine examples of original items by drilling or industrial gluing. Speaking as a collector myself, I call these glass or ceramic marriages "concoctions." They often appear on eBay and look outlandish, the proportions very much "off."

On the other hand, I have an entire collection of Hull and McCoy brown drip pottery, but I've also bought a dinner plate that has been repurposed as a wall clock. I love the look of it in my kitchen as a complement to my display of the dinnerware – but only because the plates themselves are still fairly common on the secondary market.

In jewelry, repair is sometimes necessary if someone actually expects to wear a damaged piece, and a very competent and nearly invisible repair will probably be well tolerated on resale. Likewise, if a sterling silver teapot has a loose or broken handle, repairing it will not restore its original value. But leaving it that way does nothing for either its intended purpose or its resale value.

The bottom line on alteration

The degree to which an alteration of an antique is acceptable to buyers on the secondary market depends on whether or not it or a substantially similar item would be available in pristine condition and whether the alteration has involved damage to other pristine items in its creation. From the standpoint of dealer ethics, the only thing truly unacceptable in sale of an altered item is not declaring it as such.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at