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Damage To Antiques

Many lovely pieces are offered at sales which are damaged, and these often present a very thorny problem for the modest collector. Shall he buy them or not? The price may be very tempting and the damage not really important. Is it worth acquiring them in the light of the strong prejudice which still exists against damaged objects?

Fundamentally the question of damage comes to this: if the article is of any genuine historical interest or outstanding artistic merit then the damage, provided it is not too serious, should not interfere with your purchasing it. You will certainly not expect to pay a high price for it; in the case of damaged porcelain, not more than about a quarter to a third of its `perfect' value.

Until recently collectors have always been advised never to buy damaged antiques at all, particularly porcelain. But it is a counsel of perfection, and with the increasing difficulty of procuring all antiques, it is a counsel which, if strictly followed, may result in interesting opportunities being lost. It will no doubt be difficult to resell your `damaged bargain' and ideally a collection should contain nothing but perfect pieces. But there are sometimes over-riding considerations.

For instance, had I been a collector of Russian items and had two Nicholas II plates I was offered been very slightly chipped I would still have bought them, though not at the price asked. The fact that someone had been faintly careless with them would not have deterred me, since it would not have destroyed their historical interest.

On the other hand I was recently offered an interesting English eighteenth-century plate which was damaged and which I refused. But in this instance the damage was excessive. Two large and extremely ugly cracks right across the face had utterly ruined the plate as a decorative piece, and I did not feel that its historical interest was outstanding enough to negative this `loss of face.'

I refused similarly a good pair of Bloor Derby vases which had obviously once been very charming. They were blue and gold, with panelled landscapes of definite quality. But the handles, all four of them, were broken right off. I could have bought them fairly cheaply ($20) and there are some excellent china restorers in the antiques world who might have worked wonders on them for me. But this would have involved time, trouble and expense and again the pieces did not seem outstanding enough to warrant this.

In fact, the question of damage is an extremely individual one. If you see, for instance, a beautiful famille-rose vase going cheaply, with only a very slight and near-invisible crack, and if you collect famille-rose, then it would be foolish to neglect a clear bargain for perfectionist reasons. (You can often see some very fine specimens of antique porcelain in museums and private mansions which have unluckily suffered some damage. Their owners have been wise in not deciding on removal but have had them mended as carefully as possible, making the best of a bad job.)

On the other hand, you will not want more than a few damaged pieces at most in your collection. A high proportion of them would be unthinkable. But occasionally the damage may itself be historically interesting, as with a fine Chinese figure I saw which was damaged in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and anything which had belonged to a famous historical personage and had got damaged in some celebrated event connected with him would still retain its value. But these things are very difficult to authenticate, and generally it must remain true that damaged pieces are to be viewed with great caution and only bought for very special reasons.

Lastly, a warning against amateur attempts at restoration. The repair of antiques is a highly skilled art and is not recommended to the private collector himself. Porcelain, in particular, is most difficult to treat convincingly and if you are not very careful you will damage the piece still more.

There is, however, an excellent paste available in the art shops for filling in small cracks and chips in china and experiments can be made with this. But they should be confined at first to pieces of slight value. A great problem is to find modern paints which will exactly match the originals, for of course damage takes away the painting as well as the substance of the china. Moreover, the painting of china is itself a most delicate and difficult business, requiring special skill and brushes. Many good porcelain restorers are listed in the Antiques Yearbook and you would do far better to trust the work to them.

The restoring of woodwork is, on the whole, somewhat easier than that of porcelain, but here again nothing but the simplest defects should be treated. Plastic Wood can be effectively employed to fill in cracks and to model small parts which may be broken or missing. But again the problem is to find modern stains which will exactly match the lovely patina of the original wood.