Andreas Krupa

Reconstruction in conservation-restoration? 

Gloss and colour of the surfaces of a piece of furniture showing typical red Mahogany aspect


Andreas Krupa


The proposal is about a bureau of late Biedermeier-period (around 1840) from Northern

Germany. All outer surfaces as well as those of the interior of the desk leaf are covered

with Mahogany and similar red veneer. Investigations proved the surfaces being

burnished with drying oil and polished with shellac. Historical sources describe this

special technology in different variations. Oil-burnishing always combines the

smoothening effect with the aim of enhancing colour and saturation of the veneer. In the

case of the bureau rests of dragon’s blood dyestuff have been detected within the wood

pores. Obviously the bureau originally has been treated to follow the aesthetical ideal of a

heightened deep red Mahogany aspect, showing further perfect glossy surfaces – a

common decoration concept of classicism and Biedermeier. The technology of treating

Mahogany veneer surfaces is described in many relevant books around 1800.


During the years the bureau suffered from photo ageing as well as from use, now

showing bleached and dull surfaces. The original concept hardly can be perceived and

the shellac polish is brittle, rough and fragile. Especially in the area of pores and wood

rays the coating splinters and crazes, pushing the shellac film to opacity. From the

preservation point of view as well as out of aesthetical considerations a need for action

was seen. Several approaches of ‘reanimation’ by typical conservation-restoration

measures to a certain extent failed, because the non-acceptable appearance of the

surfaces remained. The shellac polish could be stabilized and gloss was enhanced,

however the film stays nearly non-transparent and the veneer continues to be nonsaturated

and dull brownish.


What next? Keeping the idea of reviving the strong aspect of deep red and glossy

Mahogany surfaces old literature was consulted and sample boards were produced in

order to discuss the concept of reconstruction. Especially with regard to the beautiful

arrangement of pyramidal textured veneer on the frontals of the drawers it seems that just

stopping after conservation and leaving the surfaces dull and opaque does not satisfy the

mayor aspect of the bureau, being a valuable imposing piece of furniture.

The proposal will discuss the pros and cons of reconstruction and will deal with the

question: Do conservator-restorers always have to resist the concept of ‘reconstruction’?