Restoration: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not?

Antiques and decoys are subject to use and wear over time. Most of the antiques that we're discussing are at least 100 years old; and most of the decoys are 75–125 years old. Folk art objects such as weathervanes, whirligigs, and decoys were used outside where they were subjected to weather, water, and sunlight. This exposure adds to their charm and produces the wonderful patina that we all want, and some wear should be expected.

Generally, the best policy regarding restoration is to leave the object alone. Unless there is a distracting or detracting flaw that makes an otherwise desirable object unappealing, I recommend that you do not restore folk art or decoys. Minor losses or flaws that are the result of normal wear -- minor dings and chips, scratches, small bullet holes in weathervanes, neck filler in decoys (at the joint between the head and body pieces) -- are best left alone unless distracting.

Mason Glasseye Pre Repair
This rare early Mason Glasseye green-winged teal's side crack should be filled and in-painted.
It is an in-the-making crack that lost its filler after 125 years. We'd opt to leave the rest alone because the gunning flaws are not distracting.

What is acceptable restoration?

Professional restoration is considered acceptable and may be expected when parts are missing or there is damage that in your view defaces the object or impairs its use. You would freely replace the tires on a car or the drawer runners on a chest because they've worn out with use. Such restoration does not affect the overall value of the object.

Mason Challenge Pre Repair
Again, this Mason Challenge merganser has a bottom crack which cannot be seen until the decoy is handled. Leave it as is.

For example:

  • Large bullet holes on a weathervane if they detract from the beauty of the vane (say a cast zinc head with a big hole in it).
  • A lost paddle on a whirligig is a significant loss. Careful and professional replacement is appropriate.
  • Neck filler or tail chips if they detract from the aesthetic appeal of a decoy. For example, a mallard drake has a white ring around its neck. If the neck filler on a mallard drake decoy is missing, leave it alone. But if it is missing on a black duck decoy (which does not have a white ring around its neck), you probably should get it fixed.
  • Bills (beaks) on shorebirds. Generally the face and bill are made of separate pieces of wood. Bills are prone to breakage, or if they become dried out, they fall out. Ideally you should buy a shorebird with its original bill, but if you have an otherwise good decoy missing its bill, it should be fixed.
Burr Beak Pre-Restoration

Before bill repair

Burr Beak Post-Restoration

After restoration

This Russ Burr flying miniature woodcock's broken bill should be fixed. It would never look right with its short bill.

What is unacceptable restoration?

  • Bill repairs on a duck unless it is a very rare example or species.
  • Repaints, particularly modern repaints. Old working repaints are acceptable and should be left alone if they have been done well and the price reflects the restoration.
  • New or significantly enhanced surfaces on weathervanes.

Mason Goose Pre-Restoration
Mason Glasseye Yellowlegs with Tail Chips Pre Repair

Mason Goose Pre-Restoration
Russ Allen's restoration process of a Mason Premier bluebill's broken bill chip.
A sliver has been cut and carved to fit. Then painted to match the original.

Finally, two points to remember:

  • An antique worthy of restoration should be restored by a professional.
  • When you are purchasing an antique or decoy, insist on a thorough written description of what, if anything, has been done. Prices should always reflect restoration.

Mason Glasseye Yellowlegs with Tail Chips Pre Repair
A Mason split tail shorebird with two small flakes on the bottom of it tail.
We'd opt to have this repaired because this is a rare example, the chips are distracting, and they look recent.