by Donald C. Williams

Furniture Conservation and Private Collections
"Fine Art and Finances"

Things fall apart. This universal law applies to everything, including furniture. The goal of furniture conservation is to delay this unavoidable deterioration.

Few private collectors fully understand the need for conservation of their collections. It is an endeavor they might easily dismiss as unnecessary or too costly. The necessity for conservation is suggested by the first three words of this article. As to cost, conservation is no less important than any other expense in protecting a valuable belonging.

Collectibles Are Valuable Assets

Collectibles are exceptional in serving the dual purpose of providing aesthetic pleasure while appreciating as part of an investment portfolio.[1] Some connoisseurs can assemble collections without regard to financial considerations; most collectors do not have this luxury, and must therefore consider their acquisitions as assets. The validity of this statement is reflected in insurance arrangements, which are based on "market value" determined by rarity, condition, maker, provenance, quality, and aesthetic considerations.[2] Almost nothing can be done to change the portion of value determined by rarity, maker or market conditions, but conservation can influence value determined by condition and provenance.

Management of financial assets, including collections, demands specific actions. Stocks, bonds, real estate and other investments involve retaining brokers, accountants, attorneys and managers to make the assets secure. Furniture collections require conservation practices to protect and enhance their value.

Conservation: A Three Part Approach

What is furniture conservation? In simplest terms, conservation is a holistic approach to scientifically dealing with the problems of furniture deterioration. It is not simply a patchwork effort to repair specific damages. Conservation in the most basic form deals with stabilizing furniture in its present state, with a sensitivity to the past history and future condition of the object. To a lesser degree conservation addresses purely aesthetic concerns, and a conservator will avoid indiscriminate "sprucing up" of furniture to make it appear new.

Conservation requires knowledge in several disciplines. Each practicioner must be a blend of artist, scientist, art historian, and craftsman in a chosen specialty. The conservator is also a problem solver who brings to his work a special appreciation of the history and beauty of the objects he conserves.

By nature conservators are sympathetic to the object and want what is best for it. This concern generally manifests itself in a very conservative approach to determining what, if anything, should be done. We have all seen examples of repairs done without this care, varying from unnecessary dismemberment to severe loss of original material adjoining a damaged area. The ensuing loss of historic integrity and the decline in value can be considerable.

Conservators view each problem as a unique situation, with a three part approach to the solution: treatment, documentation, and preservation. These three practices form an integrated and unified perspective for dealing with fine furniture. An examination of these three aspects of conservation will give insight into the philosophy that directs conservation efforts.


Damage to furniture can range from small surface abrasions in the finish to very serious structural damage. Guiding the conservator in treating damage are experience, knowledge, skill and judgement, along with a Code of Ethics, such as the one formulated by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).[3] Every competent conservator attempts to follow this Code.

The keys to treatment are reversibility and stability of the materials used, and the integrity of the object. All materials and methods employed should fit this description. Think of the last time you saw a piece of fine furniture with an unsightly and irreversible repair. The cost of correctly re treating this object will be great. It is important that everything be done so that it can be readily undone in the future. The level of skill a conservator brings to his work usually precludes poor repairs. However, technical advances may occur, or a procedure may not work perfectly due to circumstances beyond the conservator's control. In these cases the treatment can be easily reversed, making the reversibility itself a positive financial element.

The importance of using stable materials in furniture conservation should be self evident. There is little sense in doing skilled work which must be done again because of the materials used. Poor materials may cause the treatment to fail and require the procedure to be duplicated, which increases both the cost and potential for damage to the object. In addition, poor materials themselves may actually damage to the object. Stable materials will not harm the object and deteriorate less over time, thus reducing the need for conservation in the future.

If an owner is faced with damage to his collection, careful and proper repair can diminish the loss of value caused by the damage. The conservator's skill and commitment to the object's historic, physical and aesthetic integrity makes successful repair possible. According to Richard H. Rush, author of several art investment books, "Skillful repair Restorers the value of the furniture. This is particularly true if the damage is visually obvious".[4] Conversely, careless or unskilled repair can completely destroy whatever value remains.

Good conservators use the most advanced techniques possible and strive for treatments that retain visual harmony of the piece, yet be detectable. Many furniture conservators follow "the six foot six inch rule". Taken literally the rule states that repairs should not be apparent from six feet away but should be evident to the trained eye at six inches.

Collectors and connoisseurs have debated the question of damage repair. Some collectors want to obtain objects in good condition and demand that needed repairs be skillfully completed prior to purchase. On the other hand, "purists" acquire furniture in "as found" condition, even if severely damaged. Fearful of improper restoration, these collectors want to supervise all repairs. However, if a conservator is consulted who treats the object with with expertise, respects the integrity of the object and documents his work, the debate should be rendered moot.

One final point to be made about treatment is that ethically, conservators cannot make value judgements when considering treatments. Quoting the AIC Code of Ethics, "With every historic or artistic work he undertakes to conserve, regardless of his opinion of its value or quality, the conservator should adhere to the highest and most exacting standard of treatment. Although circumstances may limit the extent of treatment, the quality of treatment should never be determined by the quality or value of the object".[5] Only the client can make value judgements about his collection.


Documentation is the record kept by the conservator pertaining to the object. Written and/or photodocumentation describes the damage suffered before treatment, the treatment procedures, and the object's condition at treatment conclusion. Documentation is part of the provenance, or history of the object, and provides a reduced risk for the buyer. It also encourages honesty among dealers, creating a more stable market. All records should accompany every piece.

It cannot be seriously suggested that two similar pieces of furniture, one undamaged and the other damaged and repaired, are of equal value. One look at auction and gallery sale prices shows this is not the case. Furniture purported to be " in untouched condition" frequently sells for a higher price than repaired or restored pieces. This price differential may prompt some dealers and collectors to omit information concerning repairs, or even to desire that repairs made under their direction be undetectable. This allows pieces to be sold as "untouched" when they are not, and is a fraudulent practice. Such pieces may bring higher prices, but these prices do not reflect the true value of the object. While some collectors or dealers might not wish to include reports of previous damage and repair, this documentation is necessary for determining the true value of the object, and is the buyer's safeguard.

In any market where price is determined solely by agreement between buyer and seller, the rule is caveat emptor. Reputable dealers and honest collectors will furnish information about condition and repairs, but others may not be so inclined. As consumers, collectors should insist on full documentation before they complete any transaction.

Documentation also makes the market more stable and prosperous. Conservation reports provide for honest transactions which reduce financial uncertainty for the purchaser. If documentation is demanded by buyers, it will be provided by any dealer wishing to make the sale. When this is the norm more people can become collectors because their risk is reduced.

An example of conservation documentation raising the value of a piece could be the following: A buyer is faced with two similar, repaired pieces. One of these has no record and the other a complete conservation report. For which will the collector pay more? The report makes the second more valuable. Guy Bush, of the G.K.S. Bush gallery in Washington, D.C. states, "(Reports) absolutely make an object more valuable. Documentation promotes confidence on the part of the buyer, knowing that the dealer is not misrepresenting the piece. This will assure the purchaser that the piece is genuine and the repairs justified".[6] In a market where integrity of the object is a prominent determinant of value, conservation documentation can be an important contribution.


The third and probably most important area of conservation activity is preservation. Preservation is the prevention of deterioration, including damage caused by environmental conditions and by use and abuse. This is the area where the collector has most direct control in maintaining the value of a collection through environmental control and minimal usage.

Environmental causes of deterioration include fluctuation in relative humidity and presence of excessive light levels. Wood is a hygroscopic material, and as humidity varies, exchanges water vapor with the surrounding atmosphere. This creates cycles of expansion and contraction which cause a wide variety of serious problems with furniture structures. Maintaining a constant relative humidity is the single most important thing a collector can do to prevent deterioration of wooden objects. Even at relatively low intensities, light can cause bleached wood surfaces and faded upholstery. Light damage is permanent and irreversible. A careful and observant collector can do a great deal to prevent these types of damage to furniture.[7]

Any furniture used regularly will deteriorate more quickly than furniture not used at all. Upholstery wears out, finishes deteriorate and structural damages eventually result from using furniture. To prevent this damage and loss of value, antique furniture should be used as little as possible. Ideally, furniture with investment value should not be used at all, a sacrifice few collectors are willing to make. The potential problems of using this furniture are serious enough that the collector should carefully consider the financial consequences of those actions.

Protect Your Investment

Conservation through careful treatment, documentation, and preservation is instrumental in maintaining a furniture collection. Poor repairs cost more in the long run than good repairs. Documentation creates an atmosphere of honesty for the dealer and buyer, making objects more valuable. Patronize only those dealers who can be trusted to give accurate information. Making ethical behavior profitable is something which benefits everyone. Finally, preserving a collection is a sound financial practice. Preventing damage saves money. Collectors who allow their furniture to be damaged suffer a reduction in their total wealth, through preventable conservation costs or reduced sale prices.

The best defense against careless or dishonest actions is a knowledgeable consumer. Retaining an individual to care for a furniture collection is like hiring someone to perform any service. There are charlatans in every profession, including the care of fine furniture. Collectors must entrust the care of their furniture only to someone skilled in conservation practices and familiar with the AIC Code of Ethics.[8]

Furniture conservation should not be limited to museum collections. Private collectors must also recognize that conservation is a rational approach to dealing with the problems of furniture deterioration. Conservation is an integral part of any strategy designed to protect the value of a collection, regardless of the owner. Furniture valuable enough to collect is valuable enough to conserve.

  1. "Investing in Art and Antiques", Business Week October 27, 1973, pp.105 110.
    "Investing for the Recession and Beyond", Business Week June 9, 1980. pp.114 117.
    "Stocks? Or Collectibles", Forbes Magazine September 15, 1980, pp.70 71.
    "Collectibles: A Boom Begins to Trickle Down", Business Week June 6, 1983, pp. 77 78.
    "High Finance Makes a Bid for Art", New York Times February 3, 1985, Section 3, pp. 1,26.
  2. For a more complete analysis of these influences on the market value, see Richard H. Rush, Antiques as an Investment, Bonanza Books, New York, 1968.
  3. American Institute for Conservation, AIC Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, Washington, D.C., 1979.
  4. Telephone conversation with the author, March 18, 1985.
  5. AIC Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice; Part One, Section II, Paragraph C.
  6. Telephone conversation with the author, March 15,1985.
  7. A good, concise guide to prevention of furniture damage is the booklet "Preserving Your Investment: Care and Maintenance of Furniture and Wooden Objects" by Marc A. Williams; Furniture Conservation Services, Haverhill, MA, 1983. This is available from the bookstore at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. 20560.
  8. Copies of both the Code and the pamphlet "How to Choose a Conservator" are available from AIC at 3545 Williamsburg Lane, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008 or on line here: AIC Code of Ethics.

Donald C Williams is Senior Furniture Conservator at the Conservation Analytical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The views expressed are solely his and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Smithsonian Institution.

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