Antiques – Preserving the past for the future
by Jennifer Stern
Fine antiques, say those who know them best, do not so much exist to serve their owners, but rather for their owners to serve. “In our day, if you own fine things, you are the temporary custodian of them,” says Willy Maliszewski, owner of Pound Ridge-based London Joiners. “You can’t think of it as an investment equal to what you have in the stock market.” Instead the careful stewardship of an antique is a responsibility that one owes, he believes, “to the original maker, that soul now long dead whose hands gave life to the piece.”
Maliszewski, or Willy as everyone calls him (as will, we, in order to save ink), is an Ébéniste, which, he says, is to an ordinary cabinetmaker what a cordon bleu chef is to an ordinary cook.
His workplace since 1982 is two rooms in an old carriage house, and it is full of artifacts that reflect the history of furniture, and the materials needstore and conserve beautiful antiques, Mounted on the wall is a beautiful piece of polished mahogany with an unusual pattern to its grain: It’s a sample of the rare tortoise-shell, or quilted, mahogany, of which, only three trees have been found in the past century, he explains. From a wooden chest, he draws out a gallon-size ziplock bag filled with tiny pieces of amber-colored resin. Harvested off plants in eastern Asia, these are the secretions of the lac beetle, which, dissolved in alcohol, have been used for French polishing since the 18th century and even earlier.
Atop another chest is an example of a tool used for furniture finish in Europe before French polishing developed. it is a bundle of reed segments that are filled with wax. Willy explains that the end of this bundle would be rubbed on the wood and the reeds gradually degrade to a lapidary powder so the wood would be polished in a wax surface almost infinitesimally thin. Other materials are stored according to a filing system that exists in his mind alone. From behind a table, he pulls a tub full of antique hardware from early 18th century through the early 20th. These highly specialized pieces – a door catch, peculiar table latches, hinges of various purposes – many of them hand made, were given to him by an old man who needed someone to take his father’s things, as he was moving to Florida. His Russian-born father had been the chief carver and restorer for legendary New York antiques firm Ginsburg & Levy. The son also gave Willy pieces of old veneer and wood carvings that the father had saved throughout his career, which began when he trained with foreign artisans in the court of the Czar. Willy saves these and other pieces of the past in the hope that he can use them to make whole the furniture he is asked to restore. He picks out of the tub a 200-year-old brass door catch from a Newport secretary bureau.
“Old people give me things,” he says. “They want them to go somewhere where ‘they have’ life and will continue to be useful.” He picked up a lovely hinge of trapezoidal shape given him by another admirer. “This is a hinge from a 17th-century blanket chest,” he says. “Someday I will marry it to a piece where it is missing.”
A antique restorer must not, he says, waste such materials on pieces that don’t deserve it. “You put into something what it is worth.” Around the shop are antiques in mid-repair or awaiting his attention: an English sofa table, an English marquetry clock, a French gold-leaf mirror frame that had fallen off a wall and collapsed in pieces, plus the 2-foot long, original manufacturer’s model of a 1941 Buick, made of wood and needing restoration.
The wall near the shop door is hung with framed testimonials from ecstatic customers, including Bette Davis, whose kidding praise contains an expletive. Another is from man who had saved $12,000 as a result of Willy’s advice. The Ébéniste found that the Empire armoire the man had recently purchased from one of the most respected dealers in London was not an original. Its veneer had been skinned from some other piece and remounted onto a substrate of new wood. The man received a complete refund. Willy says he will often accompany customers on their buying rounds to provide just such a critical eye.
It’s a field that desperately needs historical expertise. Willy, who lectures about antiques to historical societies, such as the Pound Ridge Historical Society, the New Canaan Historical Society and the Ridgefield Historical Society, as well as the Connecticut League of Historical Societies, believes there is much furniture out there that is not what it seems. Some was reproduced in the Industrial Revolution for a newly wealthy middle class who wanted the things old money had. Many are honest reproductions. For example, at the time of the American centennial, in the 1870s, many furniture makers made pieces in the styles that were popular 100 years earlier. Willy says that because many of the same tools were used in the two periods, it can be hard to tell the originals from the reproductions, One must look for evidence of machine work; the circular saw, for example, wasn’t developed until the 1840s, when a Shaker woman had an idea that would make the men’s work easier after dreaming about a plate with teeth.
In the 18th century, he explains, the European aristocracy – about 8 percent of the population in France and 5 percent in England – and a small number of commercial families controlled virtually all the capital, and only they could afford such fine antiques.
Yet, today, he says, stores “from Alaska to Florida are advertising enough 18th- and 19th-century antiques to have furnished every peasant’s house in Europe.”
People should not buy antiques exclusively for their investment value or because they are rarities, he says; rather, “they should buy for the eye but know what they’re getting and not be taken for a ride.”
A soft-spoken man with wavy blond hair, Willy shuffles about the shop in T-shirt, shorts stained with the materials of his trade and clogs. Born in Scotland of a Polish father and Scottish mother, he came to this country as an adolescent. He first became interested in his metier as a college student in England in the late 1960s. He went to Cambridge to study modern English literature, but the sight of the exquisite woodwork in the university buildings moved him to make further study of that art with skilled artisans throughout Europe.
Given his passion for traditional techniques, Willy looks askance at much of what passes for furniture maintenance and restoration today. For example, he is emphatic about maintaining a piece’s original finish because stripping a fine piece can destroy its value and integrity. As long as historically accurate methods are used, he says, new layers of polish are expected, especially on surfaces like dining room tables and bureau tops that suffer the greatest share of accidents.
It’s not uncommon for a table to have been French polished twice in a generation, he says. He says some of his clients need their dining room tabletops redone once every couple years, having abused them, he adds with a twinkle, inviting the Young Republicans over for a luncheon.
In most cases of damage, an original finish can be built up and repaired, and new patches of French polish will fuse with the old, he says. If a piece is beyond repair, it should be stripped, but not using harsh, modern dip-and-strip methods, which not only remove the finish but also the patina that the wood has built up over centuries.
He decries what he calls “the new Greenwich look,” although he concedes he needs to find a new term at pain of offending the residents of that fair town. People with lots of “new money,” he says, will buy “fabulous pieces,” then strip and lacquer them. The furniture in their homes looks very shiny, he said, but in truth has been degraded because the methods used on them are not historically true.
His use of original materials extends beyond finishes. Modern-type stains, he says, which are mixtures of earth pigments and oils, were never used on antiques. Rather, artisans in earlier centuries learned dye techniques from the tapestry makers of the low countries, particularly Belgium, and used dyes to color their woods. These were made from materials found in the natural world, such as lichen, madder root, alarizen and cochineal, a red dye made, again, from the bodies of insects: 70,000 abdomens are needed to make an ounce. Cream of tartar, vinegar and other natural chemicals – even urine – were used as “mordent,” to pull the dye further into the wood.
One of the most challenging tasks facing the Ébéniste is fabricating missing pieces, such as replacing a drawer to a Georgian sideboard that a thief has made off with along with the family silver.
Willy can, he says, recreate that drawer with wood the same age as the original, from the stockpile of wood he’s collected over the past 25 years. He obtains antique wood from a variety of sources. For example, if a piece has been partially damaged in a fire, he can steam the veneer off the undamaged parts.
The patination process for such wood can also be accelerated to match the original piece more carefully. Willy will recreate the piece’s patina – the result of human hands on the wood plus the effect of bacteria that once lived off the sugars in the original finishes – through various means, even sometimes burying the wood in specially prepared soil. And he will take special care that areas that have the most wear, such as around a keyhole, have the patina that would be natural to them. “People will know the part was made by me,” he says, “but then appreciate more the miracle of making it work.”
Sometimes, he says, a restorer will not try to recreate a missing piece with similar materials, but will make it out of acrylic instead, following a trend used by more curators today. The idea, he says, is that, with high art, the restorer uses a representational solution instead of making a part that will blend in. For example, a missing finger off a Degas statue would be replaced by an acrylic replica rather than bronze. The approach can be applied to collectibles as well.
It is part of a philosophy of making repairs reversible, in deference to the past and the future. For example, Willy will often fill a heavy scratch in a surface with hard wax the same color as the table instead of filling it in with a modern, unremovable compound. He will use old glues to fix a bracket or other joint in a piece of furniture, so that it can later be taken back apart, but will use permanent, modem glues to fix a snapped leg that can’t be mended any other way.
As a restorer, Willy sees the damage fine furniture can sustain, most of which, he says, is ‘human-inflicted,’ through misuse or neglect, such as the gold-leaf mirror frame in his shop, which fell because it was improperly fastened to a wall.
Breaks to legs – bracket legs on chests or chair legs – are the most common things he sees, followed by dents caused by dropping and other injuries to finishes. Many pieces, he said, suffer from neglect. In contrast to earlier times when the wealthy were constantly visited by craftsmen – silversmiths, tinsmiths, French polishers – who helped maintain fine things, not much maintenance goes on today.
One big problem, he says is when furniture is polished on the outside but no attention is paid to the supporting wood on the inside. Atop a pile of books, he has a picture of a brilliantly veneered Medici desk that he said had been sold from the Donatello palace in Florence in 1907. If the inside wood on a piece like this is allowed to dry out, he says, it will shrink and the outer layer of veneer will crack. Most harmful is the radical difference between the heated, dry air of winter and the humid air of summer, so different from the conditions in which people lived when the piece was made.
These pieces need moisture to maintain themselves, he says, and recommends a home with antiques have either independent humidifiers or one built into the heating system. A piece like a desk, where humidity might have trouble penetrating to the interior, can also be assisted with humidifying canisters, or even a damp sponge in a plastic bag pricked with holes, on the inside.
He said the interior carcass of pieces such as desks and chests should also he treated every four to five years with a solution of 95 percent mineral spirits and 5 percent mixture of linseed and other nutrient oils.
In some cases, a piece’s integrity has been compromised by an owner who has removed old hardware and replaced it with a style that was popular at a later time. According to Willy, these can be restored either by Finding original pieces that Pit, such as in collections like his of old drawer pulls, catches and hinges, or by casting or striking new hardware from the original molds that still exist: a much more authentic approach than using reproductions.
Leaving repairs and even care to professionals is often the best advice. Last month saw Willy making one of his rare house calls to a home in Greenwich – yes, Greenwich – with some spectacular, and well preserved, antiques. He came to work on the early 19th-century mahogany Regency-period table, where he brandished his chisel to gently remove gravy spots and places where bits of tablecloth fabric had stuck to the polish under the pressure of a hot dish. Most egregious was a spot where the finish had been removed simply by someone trying to scratch off a bit of candle wax. (The best approach for that is to press and soften the wax with a kitchen towel wetted with hot water until the wax is ready to slip off. Then the table should be dried.)
Madison Avenue’s prescriptions for furniture care can only breed disaster, he says. Lemon oil and other oils used in aerosol furniture polishes, he says, were never used on furniture until manufacturers of cleaning fluids discovered their viscosity allowed them to fit through an aerosol nozzle without clogging.
Though they create a temporary shine, they actually do furniture no good, he says. “They creep under the veneer, degrade the glue and eventually dull the finish.” Though used for dusting, he said, they actually attract dust.
French polish that is in good condition, he says, need only be cleaned every once in a while with a little vinegar. Older French-polished surfaces should be waxed about once a year – in the fall is best – using a lot of pressure, which leaves little build-up of the wax. The best final polishing cloth, according to Willy, is wool with its lanolin still present: A mirror shine will result from the reaction of the wax and the lanolin. Using a T-shirt or other cotton cloth will produce only a satin sheen.
Furniture with a wax finish, too, should not be waxed more than once a year.
The pieces can be dusted with a homemade dust magnet, as Mrs. Beeton recommended in her estimable 1861 “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.” This classic, he says, still has fabulous solutions for today. (An abridged version of the thousand-page text is available.)
An old kitchen towel, cheese-cloth or cut-up T-shirts can be soaked in a pot full of water with a few teaspoons of sugar dissolved in it. Allowed to dry, these attract dust as well as anything.
Another simple trick for a homeowner that he recommends is a temporary solution to disguise furniture dents. He recommends getting a box of Crayola crayons and melting in a spoon a combination that matches the finish, then pouring it in the dent, letting it dry and polishing it back to be level. That will keep the piece looking good and also preserve it until a professional can fix it by steaming to raise the dent, or, with a large crevice, possibly using a Dutchman inlay of a triangle of veneer.
Willy says the art of the ebeniste, at least in this country, is becoming a lost one. He shudders at what he defines as the American approach to fixing things: “running down to the hardware store.”
He said university and other courses can’t provide the training of a guild system, in which artisans train for years under the direction of a master, and that many restorers today have narrow experience and narrow training. This can lead to misapplying techniques meant for one situation to another. Best, he said, is the experience of training with a number of experts.
Training with masters still exists in Europe, he says, with the exception of England, where the unions have ruined the guild systems and ‘the best can work no faster than the worst.’
But, he says, there will always be a market for excellence, the kind of excellence that ebenistes, with intense interest in the history of furniture and in the perfection of technique, continue to provide.