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    Follow the Stories | Las Vegas, Nevada (2008)

    What "Patina" Really Means


    Posted: 5.19.2008


    This ca. 1900 blown-glass inkwell by Louis Comfort Tiffany has an auction value of between $6,000 and $8,000.

    close-up of inkwell top

    A criss-cross pattern made by tape that was affixed to the top at one time can be seen marring the finish of the inkwell's cap.

    Bronze figure

    A 1920s cast-bronze sculpture by Edward Berge. Bronzes and other works of metal are often "patinated" during their original fabrication to give them a pleasing antique finish.


    This New England highboy, ca. 1755, has developed a beautiful appearance over its 250 years of life. Unlike with metalwork, however, good furniture is almost never treated to appear antique or older than it actually is.

    At the Las Vegas ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, appraiser Reyne Haines, of Reyne Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, viewed a Tiffany inkwell from about 1900, noting that tape put over the bronze cap of the inkwell "took away from the patina that was on it." Reyne was using a word — patina — that appraisers on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW employ often, usually pronouncing it as pa-TEEN-uh, although PAT-in-a is also correct.

    However you pronounce it, the word is as rich as the objects it describes. Michael Flanigan, a Baltimore antiques dealer and an ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser, tells a story about Israel Sack, the famous New York antiques dealer who lived in the first part of the 20th century. Sack is said to have used the following analogy to help define "patina" for one of his senior female patrons: "Today you are a lovely woman of 60. However, who you are today is not who you were when you were 20. The difference is patina."

    What did appraiser Reyne Haines mean about "repatinating" the top of this Tiffany inkwell?

    Patina Equals Character
    Sack's analogy is a poetic way of describing the changes that any object (with all due respect to Sack, it usually does not refer to a person, well-preserved or otherwise) goes through over the course of time. For collected pieces, the change in appearance is usually caused by the build-up of dirt, grease, polish, or chemical changes in the finish or the object itself. That "old look" usually gives an object a rich and attractive appearance.

    "Patina is everything that happens to an object over the course of time," Michael says. "The nick in the leg of a table, a scratch on a table top, the loss of moisture in the paint, the crackling of a finish or a glaze in ceramics, the gentle wear patterns on the edge of a plate. All these things add up to create a softer look, subtle color changes, a character. Patina is built from all the effects, natural and man-made, that create a true antique."

    Michael notes that if an object is described as having a "fine patina" it's usually meant as a compliment. If something is said to "lack patina," it usually means the object lacks character.

    And Then There's Metalwork
    But as it was used by Reyne Haines to describe the bronze top of the Tiffany inkwell, the word patina has a slightly different meaning. With bronzes or any other metallic art pieces, patina refers to the finish put on a metal right after it's made to give it a more three-dimensional feel and the look of an antiquity. "To some degree, adding patina is an attempt to capture the true patina of those ancient treasures," Michael notes.

    "When you 'patinate' a bronze," explains Michael, "you are creating highlights, mattes, glossy surfaces, and color variations. Patinating something gives it a feeling of age." Without such a finish, a metal piece, whether bronze or another metal, often looks "too raw," Michael says. Such metal pieces do not need time to gain their patina, as do wood pieces. They are born with theirs.

    And patinas on metals can be damaged by tape, in the case of the Tiffany inkwell, or even by sticky price tags, something that happens more often than you'd expect. "Buyers will sometimes ask a dealer to take a label off a piece before they buy it," Reyne says of Tiffany lamps and other antiques made of metal. "If the patina comes off, they often walk away."

    Repatinate? Perhaps
    With antique furniture, dealers and appraisers rarely recommend owners remove a patina to refinish it, as doing so destroys a piece's look and character — and dramatically diminishes its value. But with metal pieces, appraisers and others often recommend a "repatination," as it's called.

    "For a few hundred dollars, you can have a piece repatinated," Reyne told the owner of the Tiffany inkwell. "You can have it fixed so that it looks brand new all over again." She later noted, "If you have a glaring criss-cross on the top of a Tiffany inkwell, who wants to keep it like that?" Repatination of metalwork is considered acceptable by some, Reyne says, because it restores a piece to how it would have looked when it was first made. That said, there are others who, like furniture collectors, are purists who will only buy pieces that are unrestored.

    A repatinated metal piece will be worth more than one with major imperfections in the patina, Reyne notes, but not as much as an equivalent piece that still has its original finish. And whatever someone does to an antique, wood or metal, both Reyne and Michael emphasize that whoever does it should record what fixes a piece has received, and always be forthcoming about restorations to future buyers. "It's never okay," Michael says, " to conceal a piece's history, age, or condition."

    See the Las Vegas, Nevada (2008) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Glass category:
    Worth More Broken? (Memphis, 2005)

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.

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