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Preservation vs. Conservation
The Age-Old Conundrum
by Bob Brooke


In the world of antiques, whether to preserve a piece or conserve it has always been a difficult decision. Museum curators always lean towards conservation. They prefer to exhibit a piece of furniture, for example, that still has its original finish and upholstery, even if one or both are in relatively poor shape. Their goal is to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate any further. On the other hand, antique dealers lean towards preservation because their goal is to ultimately sell the piece, so they want it to look as good as possible.

Among serious antique collectors, objects made before 1830 should not be preserved but conserved. Furniture patinas are just as important as the structure of the piece. Those pieces dating from the 1830s forward are often repaired and refinished which doesn’t seem to affect their value. Of course, any piece of high-end furniture, even from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, requires the same care as that made before 1830—the time when furniture making began changing from hand to machine made. To clarify this further, it’s important to know the difference between preservation and conservation.

Preservation involves keeping an antique from destruction and seeing to it that it’s not irreversibly altered or changed. It dictates that in order to retain the maximum amount of original material, repairs must be done with minimal or no changes to the original building structure and in like materials—and if possible using the same methods.

In conservation, all of the original material needs to be preserved in as unaltered a condition as possible. Any repairs must not remove, alter or permanently change any original material. All repairs or additions must be reversible and removable without affecting the condition of the original material now, and in the future.

Conserving an object means the object dictates all choices of how it should be treated. It doesn’t involve any artistic experimentation on the object. It’s important for collectors, restorers, preservationists, and conservators to have a basic understanding of that.

The conservation of antique furniture combines three major processes: The minimization of deterioration (preservation); the consolidation (stabilization) of artifacts as they currently exist; and the repair/replacemenf or restoration of existing damage.

Most antique furniture dating from before 1830 requires some form of conservation while that produced afterward often undergoes restoration. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works notes that stripping and refinishing furniture is no longer a standard practice. An early finish is as important to historic furniture as are any of the other original elements. The finish coating offers important data to researchers and is part of the history of the object and once it is removed, it cannot be recovered. The removal and replacement of a surface finish is considered a last ditch effort after other conservation methods have failed.

Today, there are products on the market that enable the cleaning and restoration of the finish on a piece of furniture without stripping. So the warm glow of the patina that has evolved over time can be both protected and enhanced. And while this may work well for pieces in relatively good condition, there are a lot in poorer condition that require extensive work to bring them back to life.

Antiques restoration can be an arduous process if the goal is total and complete authenticity. For conservators, authentic material is the actual material used in the construction and decoration of the object. For example: A chair with its original upholstery, even if it’s faded and shredded, is authentic for the conservator and possesses historic value even though it may not be good enough to be put on exhibit. The same chair can be "restored' and looking as it did when new, with replacement fabric copied from the original weave and colors and upholstered according to the known design of that particular piece of furniture. This would represent the other kind of authenticity—the kind often employed by antique dealers.

American furniture from the mid-19th century probably received new upholstery about every 30 years. Sometimes new fabric, and at other times worn upholstery was entirely.
removed before the new covering was applied. Conservator-restorers can sometimes find threads of the original fabric on the chair frame, usually around tack holes. This can guide them to the creation of a reproduction of the original upholstery if an original fabric isn’t available.

During the 1850s, furniture manufacturers developed a synthetic varnish, cellulose nitrate. But it wasn’t available in a formulation suitable for commercial use until the late 1920s. Unfortunately, cellulose nitrate discolors and becomes brittle as it ages, so over time, the coating on furniture from the 1920s and 1930s can turn yellow and opaque. It can also crisscross some places by a fine network of cracks, or the varnish can fall off completely. The early date and rarity of this original coating makes it important to retain the varnish on furniture despite these problems.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines restoration as bringing back an object to a former condition. In restoring an antique the most important requirement is the final appearance. The owner of the piece must determine the most desirable period of an object's life, and the restorer does whatever is necessary to return the object’s appearance to that period.

It’s up to the collector to choose professionals who can determine the age of the piece and what it’s condition looked like originally, then provide the expertise to bring the object back to that condition. It’s also the professional restorers responsibility to allow the piece to determine how it should be restored rather than allow the owner to overrule that choice.

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