Many people are confused about whether or not to refinish old furniture whose finish is in bad shape. They don’t really like living with the furniture, but they’ve heard (usually directly or indirectly from the Antiques Roadshow) that refinishing destroys value, and they surely don’t want to do that.
A finish serves two purposes. It protects the wood from contact with liquids, and it makes the wood look better, usually richer and deeper. The finish protects and decorates.
Clearly the finish in the accompanying picture does neither. In almost all cases it should be removed and replaced with a new finish that does both. It should be stripped and refinished.
Not doing so will probably mean the disappearance of the furniture. Well-built furniture outlasts people, the reason we have antique furniture. Though you, or whoever owns the furniture now, may be willing to live with the deteriorated finish, what happens to the furniture when it gets passed on? How many generations will treasure the deterioration, which will only become worse?
Not likely very many. This is the real shame of the message of the Antiques Roadshow, which typically runs as follows: This is a really unique piece of furniture. In its present refinished condition it’s worth about $5000. But had it not been refinished, it would be worth $60,000!
Groan. Why did someone refinish it?
Well, they refinished it because it needed to be, or it would have ceased to be useful. If they hadn’t refinished it, it probably would have disappeared into some landfill or fireplace and been worth nothing today. The current owner should be thankful someone cared enough to refinish the furniture, so they now have it to enjoy – or the $5000 if they choose to sell it.
There are exceptions, of course, but they are very rare. The appraisers on the Antiques Roadshow trade in these rare pieces, which probably accounts for their destructive message to the vast TV audience, very few of whom will ever come in contact with such rarity except in a museum.
The exceptions are usually very old, of very high quality, and were made by a craftsman who can be identified. Sometimes, an exception can be made for lower-quality furniture that was owned by an important historical figure, but you have to be wary of this sort of claim. I have had three separate pieces of furniture show up at my shop in Norman, Oklahoma that supposedly came from Paul Revere’s home, that little tiny house in Boston! He probably had only three pieces total, and all of them made it to Norman!
Of course, none of these three were anywhere near old enough to have been owned by Paul Revere.
Concerning value, unless the furniture is really unique, it will increase in value and survive with a beautiful, protective and decorative newly applied finish. It won’t lose value.