We get a lot of calls about restoring various collectibles that you are finding. One question that pops up over and over is about sign restoration. Someone has found a sign, maybe even a rare one and it’s a little rough. They want to know if they should spend the money to have it restored. I have pondered the same question myself a few times.
Keep in mind that restored signs have a limited audience, meaning not everyone will buy one, no matter how rare it is. I found a very rare, only one known for now, Caldwell and Taylor larger building sign. This is a company that I collect, which lead to the classic question, “Should I restore this sign?” The sign had lost all its original color, the red was now light pink, there were numerous chips and even for me, it was just too painful to look at. The first answer you should look for is whether you are keeping the sign or selling it. If you are keeping the piece and it’s just rough enough to hinder the enjoyment you get out of it, then with no hesitation I’d say restore it. That’s what I did with the sign I found. I am not a condition freak by any means and signs and globes with character do not bother me at all. In fact, when the sign was restored I told the sign restorer to leave a few chips on the edges as I don’t want it to look like it was made yesterday. I feel that was a good compromise. Look at the before and after photos of the sign here in this article and I think you’ll agree I made the right decision, for myself anyway.
Now if you are selling the sign you have to weigh three things; the price you paid for it plus the price of the restoration against the price at which you could you sell it. Again, if the same sign in mint condition would bring $5,000, a completely restored one just like it might only bring $2,000 or so and that price is only for certain buyers. You might get lucky and sell it for more or it may bring way less. It’s always a crap shoot when it comes to pricing restored signs. Restoring a sign takes a lot of talent and work, thus it is not cheap. Even restoring a small sign in a few areas could cost you several hundred dollars. Restoring a common Sinclair Dino pump plate, typically a $75 item, if mint, would never be worth it. Go find a better one! And how does one determine all this? Ask around, post or send a few photos, get opinions or if you know your stuff figure it out yourself. Then you have to get a quote from the person restoring the sign.
I’ve had people send me photos of rare signs at about 7-8 plus condition and asked if they should restore that piece. No way!!! To me, unless it’s a 6 condition or less I would not even consider it. Enjoy the piece as it is and if you can’t, then I’d say sell it.
Time is on our side these days. I see restored signs becoming more acceptable lately and prices are coming up. There are some incredible talents out there. One such trio, the VanKannel brothers and son, to me, are the best. See their business card ad in every issue. By the way, I swear they are not paying me to say that nor will I get anything in return. In fact, they don’t even know I’m doing this article yet!
One important fact to communicate to whoever is restoring your sign is to let them know exactly how you want it to look. I had another sign done by the VanKannels that I kept and I told them I didn’t want that shiny finish look to it. To me that finish makes the sign look too perfect so I said I wanted a slightly duller finish, leave a couple edge chips, and make it look used. Wow, it’s scary how good it turned out. In fact, I don’t think anyone would know it was restored unless I told them so, as it looks “slightly used” but the big crease and chip are now gone. I think if more people did restorations that way, restored signs would become more acceptable and again, also scary.
You know how it goes, you see a sign come up for sale and we all know how difficult is to find anything in great condition, and you wonder is it really a 9 plus or is it a restored sign? Respectable auctioneers will make that clear up front. Many will not and same goes with sellers you don’t know, like ones on eBay and such. So you have to ask questions, get guarantees, and check their credibility. Any reputable person, and I’ll argue this to the end, should give you a money back guarantee if you buy anything from them and find out later is was either phony or restored/misrepresented. If anyone will not honor this then I would take my business elsewhere as they have something to hide. This goes for any collectibles you buy from anyone. Now back to the sign in question. Can you imagine how tough that question would become if instead of restored signs having that new shiny clear coat look, that they look just like a real sign? I know real signs can be shiny. Many restorations do look near perfect and it’s just something to keep in mind as these restoration talents can restore a piece any way you want it to look. It’s gotten to the point that many people have told me that they wish the sign in question was not so perfect, then they would know for sure it was the real deal!
If you buy and sell a few signs and ask questions, look at all signs when you’re at a show, etc., you’ll get to the point where you alone can determine if the sign was restored or not, in most cases I should say. Again, sometimes even the experts may get fooled.
If you do restore a sign, get a few before and after photos. I did this with the sign I restored so if, down the road I ever have to sell it, I can show the new owner what it once looked like. Today I feel it’s a great compliment to our hobby when we take such a rare, albeit rough piece, and bring it back to life. Now everyone can enjoy that special piece.
I hate to say this but some pieces are so rough I can’t understand why anyone would bother to restore them. I have seen signs with whole sections missing and the other half so bad it’s like, wow, what’s really to restore here? But that’s up to you to do, and bless you for taking a worthless piece and bringing it back from the grave! There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just something I personally would never do.
Up close, if you’ve been around the block a few times, you can usually tell if a sign has been restored. If you are not sure ask questions. Look for a shiny clear coat, unevenness in the edges of the letters and that depends on how good the restorer was. Look for uneven surfaces that should be level and slight color differences. I’m not a sign expert so I’m sure there are other things one can look for.
The biggest problem with our hobby is the priceless internet we cannot live without! You see a few signs at a show or two you attend throughout the year. Yet many of us attend no shows and buy everything literally sight unseen or sight unseen in person. How many signs have you seen on eBay, auctions, my site, oldgas site and countless other venues that you are not actually standing in front of but have interest in? Probably 95% of them, right? Good photos are the key here and many signs offered are not shown with good photos. A bad photo and an amateur restoration could lead you to believe it is a nine plus sign and a mess for the buyer! This happens all the time. So get good photos, ask questions, and you’ll be much better off. You can almost expect any piece to be slightly worse than what the photo shows because you can never see it right up close and you won’t see every detail or every imperfection. So buy or bid accordingly.
There are many ways to make a sign look better without restoration and many tricks to cleaning a sign but I’ll leave that for another article.
I hope this helps you understand the timeless question a little better, “To restore or not restore?”