Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Critical Analysis: Evaluating Condition and Age

"Excuse me, but do you own a Mercedes?"

We all look at objects from different perspectives.  Whether you realize it or not, your ability to gather information visually is controlled by your priorities in collecting data.

Years ago, when I was actively racing bicycles, and investing in expensive custom frames by well known frame builders, I would look at other bicycles differently than my wife, who always went with me to the races.  She would constantly ask me why one frame design was superior to another, since they all looked the same to her.  I would point out the rake in the fork, the wheelbase, the height of the bottom bracket, the relationship between the top tube length and the down tube length, and continue this lesson until her eyes glazed over and she lost interest.  To her, the paint job was most important.

On another occasion, just after a rather windy storm had blown through San Diego, I received a knock on my shop door.  Opening it, a stranger said the words no one wants to hear: "Do you own a Mercedes?"

"Yes," I replied, "Why do you ask?"

"There's a palm tree on top of it."

I mention this, since I loved that car, and I wanted it restored to pre-tree condition, so I contacted my insurance carrier.  They sent out an estimator to evaluate the damage.  The front was crushed, and I stood there watching the person take notes about the condition of the car.  As she walked around the back, she made some notes, and I asked her what that was all about since the damage was to the front.

"I need to note that the rear quarter panel has been replaced," she said.

I was incredulous, since I had examined the car when I bought it (used, of course) and had owned it for several years, and I had never noticed it.  I opened the trunk and still could not see anything.  She patiently pointed out to me small areas of work which supported her claim.  Obviously, when I bought the car I was more interested in the engine and rims than the body.  Point taken.  Had I seen the body work I could have negotiated a better price or avoided the car all together.

Moral: If your emotions are stronger than the facts, stop and take a cold shower before continuing.

Second Moral:  If your insurance gives you more than the car is worth, don't be stupid and repair the car, which is what I did...because I was emotionally attached to it.  The next time it went in for a smog test it failed.  Completely.  Had to crush it.  By law.

The reason I am writing this post is not about bikes or cars, but to demonstrate how people tend to look at things.  As a serious furniture conservator, I look at furniture differently than most people.  Collectors look at the overall style and quality.  Conservators look at condition and, in particular, repairs which have been done in the past.

It is a general rule that high quality pieces tend to live in nice homes, and responsible owners tend to pay what it takes to maintain and repair their objects.  Not always, but in general.  Thus, a very well made piece of furniture will often have very well executed repairs.

American Walnut Corner Chair

This week I picked up a nice and rare American 18th century corner chair, which had the end of the arm broken off.  First thing I did was point out to the owner that the arm had been previously broken and repaired with a dowel, so there was no "loss of value."

As I normally do I examined the object closely while it was on the bench and thought I would document some of my general observations for this post.  These are the kinds of things that you should look for, if you were interested in buying something like this, or asked to evaluate it for the prospective purchaser.  I also provide this analysis for certified appraisers, who adjust the value up or down in relation to my findings.

Corner chairs are rare, so it is important to study the examples in books and museums carefully.  In many cases the chair maker saved money by making the rear leg straight, thus saving the cost of carving another foot.  Also, triffid feet (three toed) are extremely rare and valuable, so they need to be examined to determine if they are original.

I always start with examining the object upside down.  That is where the most clues are hiding.

Let's look at the feet:

Can you guess which two feet are not original?  It appears this chair lived on a wet floor for many years, as the two original feet are completely eaten by dry rot.  The other two are either new or repairs.  In particular, note the wear patterns, as a function of either actual age or efforts to "age" the foot by the repair man.

Here is a side view of one of the feet.  The one with the nails. There is no effort to hide the repair.  New wood is carved to fit and there is a shellac stick fill on the areas where the dry rot had damaged the wood unevenly.

 Let's turn our attention to the rear leg, which could have started out as a simple straight leg.  It is standard practice with these chairs to make the three legs (sides and back) out of a single board.  That is a structural necessity.  Looking at the two side legs confirms they are original:

Front leg looks good, with old corner blocks

However,when I looked closely at the rear leg I found this:  (look very closely!)

New corner blocks are also a clue

Just a faint line where the woods join

There was a join, carefully hidden under some old "patina" but clearly a joint where the lower leg had been spliced into the upper post.  Both the corner blocks were new, and from the outside the wood grain was completely different.

Different woods

Looking at another leg, it is clear the corner block was also replaced, as there are serious cross grain scratches where the surface was aggressively leveled to match.

Be more careful than this 

Finally, looking at the lower edge of the apron we find the expected marks of the rasp, which was generally the last tool used to clean up the saw marks on these edges.  Lower edges would not necessarily be examined by the user, who rarely turned furniture upside down, so it is nice to find the evidence of traditional methods still obvious after 250 years.

Another traditional method was to chamfer the back edges of the splats, which made them appear thinner in profile then they actually were.  Here we see that work which is well done.

Nice splat.  Note the center scribe on the shoe rail.

However, under the top there is another repair, not so well hidden, but reasonably effective in keeping the chair together.

No effort to hide this repair.

Like my Mercedes, which had the rear quarter panel replaced, unknown to me, this corner chair has had the rear leg replaced, also unknown to the owner.


TMP said...

What a wonderful post. Very informative. I could read posts like this all day long.

Kirk Rush said...

Thanks for this post. I would love to see more.


John Elliott said...

I sure appreciate this entry. Thanks

Johnny G d'Artenay said...

Sorry about your MB! And thanks for turning it into a great life lesson for the rest of us. I lived in San Diego for 42 years, drove by your place hundreds of times & never knew you were there. Now we're in Nashville TN and tomorrow I'll be using OBG to repair my 1961 Kay upright bass. I have a very good feeling that it's going to work great. Thanks!

Unknown said...

This is a very informative post! Thank you!