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The old altar table from the 17th century

A very old table in very good condition, this altar table dates from the 17th century, probably the late Ming Dynasty (1388-1644), in Shanxi province. The simple, striking lines with no ornamentation make a powerful statement and are typical of a Ming presentation.

The table’s only restoration is in the left spandrel, near the top of the leg. If you look closely, you can see a lighter coloring in the newer wood and the absence of a finish that matches the rest of the table.

Otherwise, the table is in complete, original condition. The crackling in the thick lacquer finish on the table top is typical of the aging affect on old lacquer. Such crackling is generally a sign of an old piece since mid-to-late 19th century furniture was finished in a different, thinner lacquer that did not crackle.

The challenge with this table is how much restoration, if any, to apply. In the condition presented here, it needs cleaning with furniture soap plus a light coat of shellac or lacquer to seal the old finish and prevent it from flaking off.

With such minimal treatment, the table could have tremendous appeal to a collector, but not necessarily to a designer looking for compatibility with fine furniture. The shape of the table would look magnificent in any setting, but the old finish might not.

Additional restoration to the table top could include filling in the gaps with a wood filler, bringing them even with the crackled lacquer finish, applying matching color to the filler, then adding coats of clear Chinese lacquer or shellac to the surface to protect the old finish and restore depth and gloss. A more complicated restoration involves filling in the gaps with Chinese lacquer, a difficult process in China and an almost impossible process outside of China, where lacquer skills are hard to find.

A restoration to the waist and legs of the table would involve light sanding to smooth out the old finish, then perhaps the addition of some color, followed by coats of clear Chinese lacquer or shellac.