- Do you think that provenance is a region in France?
- Do you think that patina is an antipasto?
- Do you ever wonder what the difference is between original finish and original condition?
If so, then please read on. The subject of antiques can be confusing; it has its own language. In this month’s column, I’ll de-mystify some terms commonly used in the business, so that you’ll be appropriately armed for your next antique adventure.
Basically, an antique is something old that has value because of esthetic or historical reasons. Generally, if a piece is more than 100 years old, it is considered an antique. Although, I have recently heard people use the 50-year mark for Canadian pieces; the rationale being that Canada is a young country relative to places such as Europe and Asia. However, I’m old fashioned and apply the 100-year definition to Canadian pieces.
You’ll often hear an antique dealer mention, in reverential tones, that an item has its original finish. This often precedes the disclosure of a price that exceeds your credit card limit. The term original finish means just that – a piece has the same finish today that it had when it was first made. It’s the original protective coating – the varnish, wax and/or polish that was applied to protect the wood when the piece was produced.
Why does original finish matter?
Original finish is significant because it is one of the factors used to assess the value of a piece. If you have two end tables – one with its original finish and the other without – the one with the original finish is more valuable. As soon as a piece has been stripped of its original finish, it has lost part of its integrity and is, therefore, less valuable.
Just as an original finish adds to the value of a piece, original condition also adds to its value. This refers to the overall state of the piece. Does the piece have the same features that it did when it was produced? Does it still have the original hardware, shelving or drawers?
If the hinges have been removed, new shelving added or the drawer pulls have been replaced, it’s no longer in original condition. As soon as something has been removed or added to a piece, it is less valuable.
Patina develops over many years. It results from a build up of polish, dirt, grease, wear, and chemical changes. Patina gives a piece its character – its beauty. The small nicks on the corners and gentle wear marks on the surface of a table indicate that a piece has lived a long and useful life. New wood furniture does not have patina because it can only develop over time.
Occasionally, a client will look at piece that just glows with a beautiful patina. He or she’ll say, “I like it but it has a little scratch on the top. Can you fix it?” I’m often inclined to say to them, “You’d have a few scratches on you if you were 150 years old!” So, next time you are shopping, remember that wear is natural with antiques.
The word refers to the documented history of a piece. It’s the who, what, when and where of it. It’s what separates the very good from the truly exceptional.
Provenance is a great word to throw around at a cocktail party. It packs a greater punch when it’s said in a highly affected tone. A good use of the word might be, “You just won’t believe the provenance of my new Louis XIV chair that I just received from France. It’s the authentic chair that he sat in while Marie Antoinette told the French peasants to eat cake!”
Yet, true provenance requires painstaking research. Continuing with the Louis XIV chair example, if you can document through bills of sale, letters, photographs, or anything else that your chair is the real one, then you have the provenance. The provenance is what would send the value of this chair sky high. Louis-style chairs are not uncommon. However, a bona fide chair linked to the Sun King is extremely rare. Serious collectors will pay top dollar for items with a well-documented provenance.