Monday, February 5, 2018

To Restore or Not—That is the Question

QUESTION:  Hi, my father, who is 93, has a chest his grandfather brought over from Sweden. I'm pretty sure its a Biedermeier. It has some wood damage, and the desk flap needs repair,. If we have it repaired, will it lessen the value? I have always loved it and don't have plans to sell it, but don't want to take away from its worth either. Can you help me?

ANSWER:  Yes, definitely get your Biedermeier secretary restored. For the most part, it’s in excellent condition. Restoring it will only increase its value. Unlike what experts say about antiques produced before 1830, those made after that can often benefit from restoration. In this case, just make sure you use the best restorer you can find. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your secretary is worth a lot of money and will appreciate even more. This is because a lot of Biedermeier pieces got damaged from dampness and such when the style went out of favor. Many sat in barns for years until the veneer literally fell off of them. So there aren’t very pieces that have survived.

So why are Biedermeier pieces so valuable? Next to the Bauhaus, the Biedermeier style movement had perhaps the most influence on modern styles to come. This Neoclassic style  originated in Germany in the early 19th century and played a major role in furniture design. It spread throughout Europe from 1815 to 1848.

The style’s name derived from Ludwig Eichrodt and Adolf Kussmaul, who depicted the typical bourgeois of the period under the name "Gottfried Biedermeier"—from "Gott" meaning "God," fried" meaning "peace," "Bieder" meaning "commonplace," and meier" meaning "steward"—in their Fliegende Blatter, a Viennese journal of the day. However, people didn’t call it Biedermeier until 1886, when Georg Hirth wrote a book about 19th-century interior design, and used the word "Biedermeier" to describe domestic German furniture of the 1820s and 1830s.

Biedermeier furniture suited the modest size and unostentatious needs of comfortable bourgeois houses. And the secretary was the most popular piece.

The less severe appearance of Biedermeier furniture led to a less formal arrangement of rooms as a whole. Flowers, screens, worktables and knick-knacks of all sorts helped to give a sense of family life. The bourgeoisie began to form a personal style, thus creating what’s now known as interior design, making Biedermeier one of the first design movements to reflect it.

People arranged suites of furniture in the corners of rooms. They created areas for eating, chatting, reading, and doing embroidery. Each had a sofa, table and chairs, and some sort of storage cabinet. Biedermeier comfort emphasized family life and private activities, especially letter writing—giving prominence to secretary desks. These featured a central niche, a mirror, and secret drawers.

Most Biedermeier furniture is extremely geometric in appearance. As the popularity of the style grew, some pieces took on new roles—the table became the family table, around which family members could site  for evening activities. Or table tops could be placed against the wall in a vertical position. A portable piano had a drawer for sewing things, while the upper drawer of a chest of drawers might be converted into a writing desk.

Prior to 1830, mahogany appeared in Viennese furniture and gradually replaced walnut. The adoption of this imported wood, which was often given a light finish, caused some craftsmen to apply matching stains and finishes to pieces made in walnut, pear wood, and Hungarian "watered" ash.

Attention to economy meant that local timber was mostly used, especially walnut veneers over a soft wood frame. Inlay served as the main decorative element, featuring the patterned graining of walnut and often reduced to a light-colored border. Sometimes, craftsmen used black poplar or bird's eye maple and colored woods such as cherry and pear became popular.

Cabinetmakers decorated their furniture with black or gold paint, and often employed less expensive stamped brass wreaths and festoons rather than bronze for decorative effect and gilded wooden stars instead of the elaborate metal ornaments of the Empire style. They designed furniture to be seen from the front and concentrated most of the decoration there.

With pieces of furniture as valuable as Biedermeier ones, it’s important to get them appraised by a certified antiques appraiser who specializes in European furniture. While getting an appraisal may appear costly, the cost is well worth it if the piece is damaged or sold. It’s also important to research former owners of the piece to create a provenance.

 To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," coming this week.

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