Antiques Restored to Original Beauty

When is it Patina? When is it dirt?











CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – Years ago I had a customer who asked me to sell her some of the professional “patina” we used to restore antiques. She was quite serious, and I gently told her we were all out at the moment but to check back later. Then I started thinking, what was she really asking for?


Patina is obviously an important element in evaluating antique furniture. It is one of the most common terms you hear when listening to an appraiser or auctioneer describing a truly nice old piece of furniture. But if you were able to stop them in mid-sentence and ask that they define the word or the concept in 100 words or less that a novice could understand, how many could do it? And is the pursuit of a short, accurate definition a productive venture? Perhaps it is. Maybe the sharper the definition, the more fluff, smoke, mirrors and confusion that can be eliminated from conversations about antiques.


The pursuit of a definition of patina, however, must have limits. A famous writer and windmill tilter from the 1970s, Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, chronicled his quest for the definition of “quality” in his book and how it eventually led him to mental instability. So moderation must be a key.


It turns out that patina apparently has a lot in common with pornography. It is very hard to accurately portray in a succinct definition but you know it when you see it.


The approach to defining patina in the literature and on the Internet falls into three categories. Some sources avoid it altogether and fail to include the word in glossaries and “furniture dictionaries.” Other sources just dance around a definition and state in glowing terms that it is “desirable” or “wonderful,” and only a few approach head-on in a real attempt to explain the concept.


The idea of patination comes from the encrustation on the surface of metal, especially bronze and copper, which indicates great age on an undisturbed surface. But patination in furniture has to be more complicated than that since few furniture surfaces are completely undisturbed over the life of a piece.


The following are a few definitions found online and in print that highlight different perspectives of the concept:


Mellow and worn aspect a surface acquires through age; highly desirable quality on most antique furniture.

Color and texture of the surface produced by age and wear. In wood furniture the varnish, shellac or oil has a tendency to deepen yet retains transparency; edges wear smooth and sharp outlines are softened.

The cumulative effect of age, sunlight, wear and grime on old surfaces of wood and metal.

The sheen on a surface caused by long handling … and the accumulation of wax, soil, stains and oils that human hands have left on furniture over the course of many years and have created a smooth film of – well – dirt.

A luster or sheen that develops with use over time usually associated with fine antiques.

The overall effect of the aging process on wood or a finish, generally characterized by a muting of the colors and a satin finish.

Here the term is used to describe the highly desirable lustrous finish on old wood pieces. Genuine patina cannot be faked since it is the effect of age. It is formed over a considerable period of time and is a complex chemical combination caused by a number of factors including the daily deposit of dirt and grime on the surface of an object, the cleaning polish or wax used in regular cleaning of this object and the oxidation on the surface caused by sunlight and exposure to the atmosphere.

Did you notice the confusion, obfuscation and occasional contradiction in the definitions?


One of them attributes patina solely to human activity while another simply says it is the result of age. One mentions a “satin finish” while another refers to the “lustrous finish.” One tells you that it is a “complex chemical combination” – thanks a lot. It is “associated with fine antiques” and is a “highly desirable quality.” So is “lots of money” but that doesn’t tell me what patina looks like or why it is important.


There is a common thread among most of the definitions however – dirt. And not just any dirt but old dirt, preferably accompanied by the appropriate amount of grime, wear, dulling, muting and softened edges. By that definition I have several pairs of jeans that are priceless.


But is it the dirt and grime that is valued so highly? I don’t think so. And the current attention to patina is just that – current. It wasn’t that many years ago that most collectors and many museum curators wanted all that old gunk and grime removed from their antiques. They wanted their priceless old furniture to look like really beautiful priceless old furniture. After all Belter, Roux and Goddard didn’t send out their work looking like it just came from 50 years in a chicken coop. When Prudent Mallard delivered a four-poster bed you can be pretty sure it was nice and shiny – and clean. And Duncan Phyfe didn’t add dust to his caryatids to up the price. So what is the current fixation on patina all about? That’s easy. It’s about authenticity and originality and not necessarily that the old dirty finish is that gorgeous. A crackled black shellac surface is hardly beautiful but it does lend some credence to the age of the piece.


What collectors and curators – and everybody else for that matter – are looking for is the equivalent of a certificate of authenticity. As one of the definitions above pointed out, faking a patina is difficult but producing a reasonable facsimile apparently is possible. Evidence of that can be found in the “17th century” chair made in the 1970s by Armand Lamontagne, which resided in a famous museum for many years. See Myrna Kaye’s classic Fake, Fraud or Genuine? for details on that one.


But since patina, whatever it is, is truly hard to duplicate, its perceived presence is highly valued, not for its own qualities, whatever they are, but rather as evidence of age and perhaps even authenticity in antique furniture.


In that light a precise definition of patina may not turn out to be so important, and like pornography, can be recognized without being strictly characterized. Patina can then be relegated to its proper place in the industry – not as the Holy Grail itself but merely as another tool to use in identifying and authenticating an antique.


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By FRED TAYLOR


Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com