In America, original condition and patina is everything. Refinishing can significantly reduce an item’s value. Even the value of minor restoration is hotly debated. This debate does not exist in France. Here, while not all antiques need to be made “remise in etat”, they should at least be aesthetically pleasing with most major flaws corrected. There are two main reasons for this.
First, they have a good deal of historical proof that there is rarely such a thing as original condition. Extensive records from the Garde Meuble (royal records) show that furniture was regularly refinished, and often even re-veneered and modified to suit new purposes. So, if a commode has been refinished to “as new” condition four or five times in the past, what is the harm of doing it again?The second reason is aesthetic. The French believe, with good reason, that an artwork should look as originally constructed by its creator. It should match the artist’s creative vision. I cannot help but to agree with this. I think if an 18th century U.S. maker saw his work in Winterthur, he would immediately propose a good French polish.
But like all good things, the presence in the Paris region of so many capable furniture restorers does create one downside. If an item is restored to perfection, it loses many traces that enable one to judge its age and the originally of its decoration. For instance, a Louis XVI console (photograph shown above) recently sold at the Marc Authur Kohn Auction in Paris (12 Feb 2021). The photo does not do it justice; it was even more beautiful in person. Were all the bronzes original? Perhaps, but how to tell? The refinishing had removed all the shadows that would have been created on the wood by years of cleaining, polishing and use. The re-gilt, of course, made it even harder to judge. This was doubly true for the ormolu beadwork trim. In such a case, it would have been comforting to the collector if some photos of the “before” state been available, as is frequently done with classic cars prior to restoration.
Then there is the issue of gilding. There is a good reason re-gilt is frowned upon in the U.S. – it is typically a horrible botch. Either gold paint liberally applied or gold leaf applied over the damaged area with no surface preparation. At least in France, albeit at high cost, re-gilt can be obtained that returns the item to its original state.
For the do-it-yourself amateur, I think restoration should be limited to cleaning bronzes by the technique I outline on this site, and French polishing, since shellac can always be removed if things go badly.