Q: I would like to know when this chair was made. I believe it was originally a bar stool that belonged to my grandfather, who gave it to my parents. Having no use for one bar stool, my parents cut off the legs to make it more functional. The seat is thin and cracked and the finish needs to be redone. There is a paper label underneath the seat reading “Thonet and Broadway, New York.” Is it worth having this piece repaired?
J. Y., The Villages, Florida
A: For some reason that we have never been able to fathom, people want to take old pieces of furniture and modify them so they will be more “useful.” But those who have this impulse should understand that if they have any interest whatsoever in the future monetary or historic value of a piece, they will restrain their urges to paint, chop, add, simplify or rearrange.
In the case of this chair, the shortening of the legs was nothing short of an amputation. And when the legs were reduced, so was the monetary value and the interest to collectors. The rule is unless a piece can be returned to its original condition with its original pieces and parts, it is forever devalued in every sense of that word (except, perhaps, as a family heirloom).
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Michael Thonet was born in Boppard, Germany, in 1796. Initially, he was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, and he experimented with gluing and bending wooden slats. His first success with furniture made from this material came in 1836 and was called the “Bopparder Schichtholzstuhl” or “Boppard layerwood chair.”
Thonet failed to get his process patented in Germany, France, Great Britain and Russia, but in 1842, when Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich showed interest, Thonet and his family moved to Austria, where he was granted the right to bend any type of wood into curves using steam. For almost a decade, Thonet and his firm Gebruder Thonet (or “Brothers Thonet,” which was actually composed of Thonet and his four sons) was the sole producer of bentwood furniture.
Thonet made chairs, stools, tables, settees and rocking chairs among other pieces. In 1859, the model No. 14 chair was introduced with a looped bentwood back and inset cane seat, which was perfect for cafes in both Europe and America, and it’s still in production today.
Eventually, there were other firms making bentwood furniture, including the Austro-Hungarian firm of Josef Kohn Brothers, but Thonet bentwood pieces are still desired by both collectors and buyers of new pieces. Thonet items imported into the United States were retailed in any number of shops, but as the label states, the one belonging to J. Y. was sold at the location on Broadway (or West Broadway) in New York City.
Thonet stools like the one in today’s question, which were made in 1920s retail between $1,000 and $1,200, while single chairs bring somewhat less at between $200 and $250 (but these are hard to sell as singles). Unfortunately, because of the alterations, the bar stool belonging to J. Y. has only sentimental value.
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