There has been some discussion about a very interesting topic recently over the internet: restoration of Japanese armor. I have been professionally in contact with restorers for the last 25 years but as a third-generation antique dealer, I have always been living among them since I was a child. I would like to clarify some points and explain some issues that may be not immediately evident to everyone.
First of all we should distinguish some terminology and not call everything “restoration”:
- Conservation: to conserve is the supreme preservation principle. Together with stabilization and safeguarding measures, conservation work that protects the item’s materials and prevents its further loss should have absolute priority overall other measures. It seems that somehow when a collector says “I don’t like items restored” implies he does not want them preserved. This is obviously not true.
- Restoration: To restore means to re-establish. The aim of restoration is to reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the work of art and is based on respect for original materials. The most common work in this category is cleaning.
- Renovation/Replacement: To renovate means to renew. Renovation aims particularly at achieving aesthetic unity in the sense of "making new again". This refers to adding a missing part or replace a completely destroyed one. In armor, the most common work of this kind is lacing replacement, something we all consider acceptable when the old one falls apart. It is anyway up to the conservator to decide for this and many museums or collectors just add nylon thread to support the armor’s plates. Replacement should be done on secondary elements, otherwise the risk is to create a fake, and only on damaged parts; for this reason, completely relacquering an item that has only few chips can not be considered a good restoration! A collector is free to decide how renovated he wants his items to be; one may not care of added kanamono because they look good, but it is perfectly understandable that another one likes only original parts on his items.
- A "museal" approach, where all restored parts should be visible. The added parts are done in a different color and there are never repaintings which cover original parts. The main point of this approach is about preserving the actual state and avoid that a work of art will get worse as time passes.
- A "commercial" approach, where the restored parts should not be visible and merge perfectly with the original ones. The main point of this approach is about making the item similar to the original state.
The second approach of course opens an ethic issue, because we might wonder who is responsible for disclosing the restoration: the seller (who might not know about it if it an old restoration) or the buyer? Each business has a different approach but generally a dealer is responsible, while a private seller or an auction house are not. The main problem is the "weight" of this restoration, and we don't talk only about the percentage of the item that has been restored: I could add a 5% of paint and transform a normal 18th century view of Venice in a Canaletto worth millions, if I know what to add or modify! So basically one should decide what is important in a work of art. And this might be personal. If I consider kabuto collecting, a new shikoro on an old bachi is acceptable, while a new bachi on an old shikoro is not, even if the amount of iron used for the two parts is the same.
Finally, the golden rule of restoration is that a work has to be reversible. Traditionally, Japan does not have a “restoration” culture but a “renovation/replacement” approach. They just rebuild temples when they are worn. They make new castles. In Japan a completely relacquered kawari kabuto might be seen as "restored" (but you won’t see that at the Tokyo National Museum anyway).
I hope it is now clear that speaking just of being pro or against “restoration” does not really make much sense. It is all a matter of what kind of work is needed and what we want to achieve.