Restoration? Think Twice
By Leigh & Leslie Keno, US Antiques Roadshow appraisers and judges of the Post-War Preservation Class at Pebble Beach
On the Roadshow we often tell owners of pieces with original surfaces to leave them alone. Sadly, in some instances, we have had to tell owners that their restoration efforts have greatly decreased the value of a piece: “The $50,000 highboy that you own would have been worth $150,000 if you hadn’t had it refinished.”
In the world of antique furniture and art, value is directly proportionate to original condition. Finish, high quality, and exquisite detail are characteristics collectors seek in a 1760s Philadelphia Queen Anne walnut armchair as well as in a 1930s Bugatti. But once parts are replaced or an item is reupholstered or refinished, the essence and character of the object is diminished.
To completely restore a piece of furniture or a car—essentially making it look like new—takes away all of the evidence of its history of use. The wear marks, stains, and dings on the legs and arms of that armchair, earned over 250 years of human contact, have a special beauty. Similarly, the chipped paint on the nose of a 917 Porsche—paint chipped by grit as the car flew down the Mulsanne straight—adds to its historical significance.
In some cases, restoration calls the authenticity of an object into question or makes authentication difficult or even impossible. Leigh learned this lesson the hard way. He found and purchased the equivalent of a “barnfind” in the clock world—a rare banjo clock by the great clockmaker Aaron Willard. It was untouched and original in all respects, but the works were dirty and were not functioning. So Leigh sent the clock to a man recommended to him as a reputable clockmaker to do just what was needed to get its movement in proper working order before selling it at auction. Unbeknownst to Leigh, this man meticulously polished and buffed every part, removing every hint of dirt, abrasion and age. To make matters worse, this restorer engraved his name and date on the clock’s back plate! A DECADE LATER, Leigh received a phone call from Christie’s asking why there were new works in what was supposed to be an original clock. Leigh assured Christie’s that the works were original to the clock when he sold it, but there was no hint of age to back him up at that point. Once the evidence of the history of use of an object is lost, it can never be replaced.
Of course, automobiles face a number of obstacles that make their preservation difficult. Unlike art and furniture, a car’s ongoing use causes it to be exposed to the elements. It also must be noted that even with the most careful of drivers at the wheel, cars do get damaged in accidents.
The first step in preserving any automobile involves determining exactly what you have. And regrettably, the vast majority of older cars are unoriginal in some respect; most have been repaired or restored in some way. Some have been painted and repainted, some have new parts, and some have been rebodied. Some of these changes will have been made in period, some to repair damage from an accident, and some simply to update or refresh a car. You need to determine what is truly original to your car. Only then can you determine how best to preserve or restore it.
The second step in preserving a car involves determining what you hope to do with it. Do you simply want to exhibit it, or do you intend to use it as a car, driving it on tours and rallies, competing in concours d’elegance, or perhaps even racing it? Each of these activities might lead to you to make different decisions and take different actions to preserve—or at least conserve—an original automobile.
There is a very delicate balance to be maintained if you want to not only preserve but race an original car! It must be mechanically safe for the driver, yet you don’t want to compromise the car’s authenticity. We race a 1980 512 BB LM Ferrari and we have had to make some tough decisions in this regard. Ultimately we have chosen to preserve all of the car’s external surfaces, keeping most of the original body panels (complete with sponsor stickers) in storage, while maintaining the car’s mechanicals in order to race it.
We recommend that owners maintain an archive of not only old parts, but also documents and other ephemera—manuals, badges, trophies, race programs, tool kits, period photographs, accessories, and original parts—relating to a car. Such an archive can add both considerable historical interest and value.
At this point, a finite number of vintage cars remain in excellent to pristine original condition, yet these cars are in constant danger of being restored and their authenticity compromised forever. From the very start of the auto industry, car buyers desired the latest and the greatest. Eventually collectors learned to appreciate and desire older cars—but they generally still wanted them to look like new. Even today many car collectors continue to feel that every old car should be restored to look like it did when it first left the factory. Accordingly, many fine examples of original cars are restored unnecessarily.
Fortunately, the vintage car market is finally moving in the same direction as the market for antiques and fine art, where a premium is placed on authenticity. As has been often said, “a car can be restored many times, but it can only be original once.”
The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance has played a big role in pushing for this change. The FIVA Trophy was first awarded to the best preservation car on the field at Pebble Beach in 1999. The 2001 Concours included the first class devoted solely to pre-war preservation cars. And in 2007 a post-war preservation class was added. These preservation classes were created not only to showcase wonderful original automobiles, but to spur collectors to preserve rather than restore their cars. As car and preservation buffs, we are honored to be among the Judges for these important classes.
Of course, the only way that some collectors are going to get the message is when they realize that the barn find vintage touring car that they purchased at auction for $2 million and spent $400,000 to restore to like-new condition then sells at auction for just $1.5 million. Money talks. And cars in original condition, especially rare cars, are now regularly bringing more than comparable cars that have been restored. In most cases, the rarer the car, the bigger the gap between the value of an original versus a restored example.
In August 2008 an elegant 1939 Talbot-Lago T150C SS sold at Bonhams & Butterfield’s for over $4.8 million. Rarity and racy lines certainly played a factor in the price; the automobile is one of just two such cars to exist from Marcel Pourtout’s shop—and this car is the only one that remains in completely original condition. The chrome, the paint, the interior are all original, and the provenance is impeccable. We viewed the car at the auction preview and sat carefully in it, and it had a special aura; it was as if we were transported back in time. If the buyer decides to completely restore rather than preserve the car, then the soul of this Talbot-Lago will be gone.
We still have some work to do in changing at least one writer’s attitude towards preservation: In covering the sale of this car, Los Angeles Times writer Dan Neil, first praised the car’s originality, then said “One reason the Talbot is such a find is that it can be a double winner at Pebble Beach—first in the unrestored original class and then, with a few thousand hours of meticulous restoration, as a contender for the Concours ‘Best in Show’ title.” Wow!
We trust that some day, quite soon, the Pebble Beach Concours will award that title directly to a preservation car.
And a few words from the Chief Judge himself…Ed Gilbertson is the chief judge at Pebble Beach and the Cavallino Classic concours, two of the most demanding such events in the world. His views may surprise you
One of the biggest disappointments of my life and one that I will never get over is what happened to my 1950 Ferrari 166MM Touring Barchetta when I sold it a few years ago. Historian Stan Novak considered it the most original Barchetta in existence.
When it was sold to a well-known major collector I told him not to touch it, everything worked and it needed nothing. I also told his well-known restorer to do nothing but routine care and maintenance. I further emphasized that they were custodians of history and had an obligation in this regard.
The next time I saw the car was at Pebble Beach in the Ferrari Class where I barely recognized it. It had been given a total ‘ground-up’ and looked brand new. It was totally stripped of its soul and character. My wife Sherry and I literally cried and we wished to God that we had kept it. Prior to this sacrilege, the steering wheel still had a famous Italian driver’s palm prints on it.
We had our little "Gino" for close to 25 years and never changed a thing; we ran it in three 1000 mile rallies and regularly used it in club events; we won Best Ferrari at Pebble Beach with it in 1979 just as it was, and it sat next to my desk in the garage where I could reach out and pat it on the fender. What in the world was that restorer thinking about? Certainly not the important history of the automobile.
Not too long ago, someone called and told me that Gino had been sold to another major collector. I said that was impossible because the car no longer existed. The man who now owns the car contacted me recently and expressed interest in having me see it. I told him point blank that Gino was gone, but that he did have a nice new Barchetta. What a heart-breaker.
I have been a champion of preservation ever since I established preservation judging and preservation awards at Ferrari events in the 80's and I have been committed to the establishment and judging of Preservation Classes at Pebble Beach since I became Chief Judge in 1999. I also strongly support the FIVA awards at Pebble Beach and elsewhere.
With your able assistance and that of the Keno brothers and many others, I will spend the rest of my life trying to prevent the destruction of history through needless restoration. Fred Simeone, who is also one of our Pebble Beach judges, was dismayed when he heard about Gino. Everyone knew and loved that car and Fred wishes it had landed in his great collection of wonderfully preserved automobiles. I wish it had too for it would still live instead of being buried in the field of broken dreams.
People often ask me, can an unrestored car win Best of Show? My answer is a clear and definite yes. Unrestored cars have already won class awards in our regular classes at Pebble Beach, and not too long ago, a completely unrestored Ferrari 196SP from the ‘60s won Best of Show at the Palm Beach Cavallino Classic where I am also Chief Judge.
So onward and upward. Bust your chops to keep them right and we will all get our reward in car heaven. So help me God.
Amen and best regards
Images courtesy MASSINI AG and Bonhams