We don’t talk much about the conditions of items here at Collectors’ Quest; we figure any collector worthy of his salt & pepper shakers knows that if the tail on the squirrel shaker has been glued back on, it’s not worth as much as a squirrel shaker with a non-damaged tail. But conditions are a major part of collecting — especially as it pertains to repairs.
I think we’ve all seen at least one episode of Roadshow where an antique table lost half its value because dad had stripped it bare, removing it’s collector-preferred patina, and gave it a good shellacking — something the current table owner wanted to go home and do to dad for his restoration efforts. So rule number one, leave that patina alone.
Then again, we’ve also seen how a properly cleaned painting can double in value. And sometimes, funky patina is to be repatinated…
So what’s a collector to do: repair it or leave it alone?
Other than to say that you should do everything you can to protect your collectibles, the answer of just how to care for your collection isn’t a simple one. As a rule of thumb, my personal (and I mean that — this is all my personal opinion — not professional advice, as you shall see) thoughts are that if the item is valuable enough to you, either for sentimental or financial reasons, you should seek the advice of a true professional.
Only you can be the judge of an item’s sentimental or personal value; but when it comes to monetary value of your collectible, the only way you can accurately receive an estimate is to see a professional appraiser. And that’s going to come with a fee. That’s what “professional” means; being paid for services — well, that and experience, accreditation/certification/license. So if you aren’t ready & willing to drop some cash to find out how much cash your item is worth, or stand in line at appraisal events (note: at those events you will not receive official documentation to use for selling, insuring etc.), then you’ve likely accepted that fact that your broken squirrel s&p shakers are probably not worth much more than the seasonings they were designed to hold.
But let’s say that you’ve got a pretty good ballpark idea of what your item is worth, &/or you know what damages or conditions are affecting the price of your collectible. Should you repair it?
My immediate thought is, “No, you should never ever repair something; you consult a professional.” And by that I mean you should ask a professional conservator who specializes in the kind of object you have. You’ve got a book with a bad binding, you go to a professional book binder or book conservator; you’ve got a painting with a tear in it, you go to an art conservator. At this level of repair, you do not trust someone who professes to be a generalist; he’s like dad refinishing that antique table, capiche?
Now the conservator is not an appraiser and vice versa, but he or she should have a general idea of what the market is like in their area of expertise and either should at least be able to tell you if that layer of green on your collectible is a desirable patina or horrible thing to rectify asap. This means that if the appraiser (paid for or at a free appraisal event) recommends a conservator, you trust it. And if the conservator requests (or even requires) an appraisal prior to beginning work, do it. Frankly, unless you seek repair/restoration for purely sentimental reasons, knowing the item’s monetary worth is probably key in your decision to repair/restore or not; you’ll want to at least recoup what you invest.
Now as for how you find a real conservator in your area, you can start with your local professional appraiser. He or she may have a list of recommended conservators. If not, I highly recommend starting with your local museum. (I do not, however, recommend asking the local historical societies; no offense, but they work on virtually non-existent budgets which generally limits prevents their own use of such professionals. This also serves as a public service reminder to support your local historical societies.) If you cannot find a professional conservator in your area, you can use this form to get a list of professional conservators from the The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works.
Once you’ve got a list of possible professionals, interview them. To make sure they know what they are doing ask them about the following:
You may even want to ask to see examples — like any recent graphic design student, many have a portfolio of their projects to show you.
When you do hire your professional conservator, the conservator should:
The conservator should also agree to document, in photographs and words, exactly what was done and when. This is the proof of authenticity of professional repair, assists if any future repairs/restoration is needed, and becomes part of the item’s provenance.