Tips of the Trade
When to Fix Metal Sculptures
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser Eric Silver specializes in sculpture and metalwork.
Valuable bronze pieces should be fixed by someone who knows how.
This piece was more valuable to its owners than to the marketplace.
Only less valuable sculptures are usually welded back together.
Leave the patina alone on your metal sculptures.
Eric Silver, director of Lillian Nassau Ltd. in New York City, has seen his share of metal sculptures, and unfortunately, a good many of those he sees are bent, broken, or have a damaged patina. The first question that owners often ask is a practical one: "Should I bother to fix this?"
Should you fix your broken metal sculptures? It all depends on what you have. Eric Silver explains when to bother, and when to leave well enough alone
Eric finds it a good question, and one that can take a little time to answer. "You have to find out what it is you have before you can decide whether to fix it," he explains. "ANTIQUES ROADSHOW has shown people that they should do some homework and do a little investigation to find out what they have. Before you begin a repair, you should go to an appraiser or an auction house, look on the Internet, or dig into some reference books. There's a tremendous amount of information available to people these days."
Valuable Pieces, Careful Repairs
About 90 percent of the pieces that people show to Eric are made of bronze or its poor cousin, spelter, known as white metal or pot metal, which contains zinc. Spelter is less prized than bronze because it's softer, doesn't hold details as well as bronze, and also corrodes more easily.
"A lot of people think they have bronzes and are disappointed when they find they have spelter," Eric says. To distinguish between the two, Eric suggests a simple test you can do at home. On the underside of the sculpture's base, scratch the piece's patina with another piece of metal. "If the scratch is a copper color, it's bronze," Eric says. "If it's silvery gray, it's spelter."
But value is also determined by who made the piece and its provenance—who owned it. A metal sculpture created by Rodin, for example, or once owned by the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, is usually worth your time and money to repair, and to repair properly. If you own a valuable sculpture, Eric recommends you contact a local museum to find a reputable restorer who is a member of the American Institute for Conservation.
"There's a difference between museum-quality repairs and just welding something back together," Eric says. "The point of all museum-quality work is that it's reversible." That's important, because restorers of metal sculptures or any antique always want to be able to undo earlier repairs as better restoration techniques are developed. A restorer will often glue a metal piece back together—a reversible process—rather than weld it.
Priceless to You
But the monetary value of your piece, Eric says, shouldn't be the only consideration when considering a repair. When Eric was in Memphis, he and ANTIQUES ROADSHOW host Lara Spencer followed a local repair done at the National Ornamental Metal Museum of a statue of William Shakespeare that had a broken leg and had been knocked off its base. The sculpture wasn't worth a lot of money, in part because it was cast with spelter. Still, the statue had been given to the owner by his aunt and his wife had a special place for Shakespeare: she was an English teacher. The couple decided to spend a few hundred dollars—probably what the reconstructed piece was worth after it was repaired—to put Shakespeare back together, and they were thrilled with the results.
"Broken in a box under the bed, the Shakespeare is worth nothing to anybody," Eric says. "Once it's fixed, it can be displayed proudly and even sold. So if your piece is a family heirloom, if it goes with the decor in your home, if you like the subject-matter -- all those considerations are important in whether you should make the repair or not."
If your piece is only valuable to you and not to the market, Eric says coarser repairs that are not reversible are fine to do. At the National Ornamental Metal Museum, Eric and Lara watched a metal worker weld back together the long neck of a wading bird made of spelter, grind the weld down, and then stain it to match the patina. Welding made for a sturdier repair than the glue that a conservator would use, and in this case it was appropriate. That's because the owners wanted the repair done so they could display the bird and not worry about the durability of the fixed joint.
"If that piece was worth $50,000, you wouldn't see a guy blow-torching and then grinding it down," Eric says.
Damage to metal sculptures cannot only be fixed; it also can be prevented. The first piece of advice Eric gives to metal-sculpture owners is to keep valuable metal pieces away from moisture, such as rain and the elements outdoors, which can corrode them.
"Heat doesn't affect metal," Eric says. "It's when pieces are left in a damp place like a garage or a basement that they can corrode."
Eric also advises that you leave the patina on an old metal statue alone, just as you would with a patina on a piece of antique furniture. A few years back, a visitor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW brought Eric a copper bowl made at Roycroft, the highly respected handicraft community in East Aurora, New York. The owner had rubbed off the brown patina on the bowl with steel wool and metal polish, leaving it "shiny like a new penny," Eric says. He was sorry to tell her that the elbow grease she had applied reduced the piece's value from about $10,000 to about $1,500.
"Don't use metal cleaners, it can take off the patina," Eric advises. "Just dust them off. If you want, use a little clear paste wax and a terry cloth towel, and it will shine up just fine."
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Metalwork & Sculpture category:
Polishing Your Precious Metals
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.