Your antiques have taken you a lifetime to collect, and if proper steps of conservation are applied, can last for generations. The beauty of most antiques is that they were built to last. Great time and care went in to their creation, and they are often built to exact tolerances with superior materials. Even delicate antiques are usually stable if care is taken. Still other pieces may be particularly delicate as technologies used to create them were in their infancy or not completely understood and this made them inherently unstable. We will offer some helpful hints and basic rules of conservation that will preserve the life of your prized possessions and insure that they will be passed to our children’s children.
Knowing the materials that make up your antique and an understanding of the environment in which they will be stored and displayed in is paramount and this knowledge can help owners make informed decision that will protect their valuables. Presented are some of the common dangers to antiques and ways to prevent damage and deterioration to some common materials. The governing rule of conservation should be to do no harm to your antique. Overhandling, light, dust, environmental extremes involving moisture or heat, unseen environmental elements, animals & pests and improper cleaning or repairs are all able to impact the stability of an antique.
Over-handling is the number one danger to antiques. Every time an antique is handled, it comes into contact with dirt, oils, salts and moisture from our hands. Handling also increases the risk that parts will be loosened or in the case of delicate antiques broken. There is also the ever present danger of dropping a piece. Owners handling pieces should take a few preventative measures to protect pieces when they are being handled. Pieces should be handled carefully and supported with two hands on the strongest portion of the object to prevent dropping. Pieces made of metais or other materials that react with moisture should be handled using cotton conservator’s gloves. Particularly sensitive materials include, ferrous metals, brass, copper, ivory, leathers, paper, etc.
When showing pieces, special cautions should be taken. Place a jewelers pad underneath or place the piece on the pad so that it can be admired and will not be be scratched on hard surfaces. The piece should be supported on a non-reactive stand especially if it is uneven or unwieldy. Custom cases or stands can be made that will properly balance and support pieces. Stands and boxes will allow a piece to be moved with the minimum of handling and offer protection to a piece. Glass or plastic cases that allow a 360 degree view are ideal as they allow a piece to be seen from all sides without handling.
An archival soft plastic case that allows this bronze medallion to be picked up and viewed from any side without damaging the piece.
Pieces with working mechanisms such as clocks, watches, firearms, automatons, music boxes, etc. are tempting to use and when showing are often run or worked. Prior to showing or using a piece with a mechanism, the piece should be carefully inspected. If there is any sign of damage it should not be used and a professional should be sought out to make repairs. If the piece is run, it should be monitored so that if there is any trouble it can be stopped before major damage is done. Firearms should not be “dry fired”, as this can crack or loosen mechanisms. Automatons or pieces using a mainspring for power that are operated should have be run until all tension is released from the mainspring.
The environment in which antiques are displayed and stored is another important consideration. Fortunately, there is a greater understanding of the environment and the chemistry that can effect our prized possessions. Owners should consider where a piece will be placed and stored and weigh the pros and cons. We want to see and have our antiques be seen but many times this can effect stability. Many antiques originally came in custom crafted boxes that were padded and came with a lock and key. Searching out original boxes or having one made can increase the value of a piece and help showcase it’s beauty. Modern pressboards, glues, wood pulp paper used in bookcases, jewelry boxes, storage boxes can react with antique materials.
A French First Empire General’s uniform button in an archival plastic case with inert foam bedding.
When choosing storage or display units, seek solid woods, archival boxes that are acid and lignin free, uv protectant glass and archival plastic sleeves that do not contain PVC. Many companies now offer these products and will advertise as archival.
Strong light should generally be avoided for many pieces. Ultra violet rays can fade or discolor leather book bindings, paper, paintings, woods and textiles. Owners can combat the effects of strong sunlight by darkening rooms with dark thick shades during periods of intense sunlight. Pieces can be displayed in shadow boxes or cases with UV filtering glass. Owners should rotate pieces from their collections to minimize light exposure and this will have the added benefit of constantly showcasing various portions of your collection. Textiles should be stored when not in use or covered with a non-reactive covers. Delicate silks are particularly susceptible to light. Documents and maps can be faded to the point that any text may be unreadable.
An example of a glass enclosed display table that allows pieces to be viewed without handling. This case is in a brightly lit room, where light is controlled by heavy shades.
Environmental extremes involving moisture and intense heat should be avoided. Moisture is a common hazard to many types of materials found in antiques. Moisture can cause mold damage and discoloration, especially to documents. Wood is also greatly effected by moisture and heat. High humidity can cause a piece to enlarge and crack.
Pieces with inlay are a greater danger as the various types of wood will expand and contract at different rates and inlays are generally tightly fit and do not allow room for “give.”
A Victorian coal scuttle with inlaid woods showing some buckling due to expansion and contraction of the veneers.
Ferrous metals will quickly oxidize in the presence of moisture and develop a layer of rust. Overly dry, hot conditions can cause wood to shrink and pull away from fittings. Textiles can also be damaged by moisture, which will create a perfect environment for molds and mildew. Humid basements or dry attics will quickly deteriorate an antique. The best rule to follow for antique pieces is to place in rooms where you would want to live. Desicant packs that absorb moisture can be purchased to protect cased antiques. These packs offer a low cost preventative measure that far outweigh costs associated with cleaning and repair.
Unseen environmental elements can alter an antique piece. Airborne elements like sulfurs and dust collect on pieces and can react with certain materials. The most common example would be tarnish on silver. Silver in its purist form is a noble element that is non-reactive but silver used in silverware or other objects d’arte is not pure. Other metals added to give stability react with the atmosphere to cause tarnish. Silver should be protected using silversmith bags, which are chemically impregnated with anti-tarnish chemicals and kept in a case. Materials such as wool, felt and velvet release sulfur that will hasten tarnishing In some cases this “patina” is sought and it shows the age of a piece. Brass and copper develop this rich patina that develops over time. Dust can be kept from gathering on a piece by placing it in a case and by regular cleaning of the surrounding environment using a filtered vacumn and duster that will collect rather than move around dust particles.
Animals and pests have long been the companions of man. Domestic animals although like family members have no regard for the age or value of your antiques. Animals should generally be kept away from rooms housing high value antiques. Dogs and cats love to chew, scratch or lay on antique carpets, textiles, or furniture. Pests like mice, moths, silverfish, woodworm, etc. have always been the bane of mankind.
A Silverfish illustrated below is a common insect that feeds on starches. During feeding, it can damage bookbindings, papers and pictures.
These pests will seek out your antiques to make their homes and for sustenance. Again the best rule becomes to keep antiques where you reside. Pests tend to gather in attics and basements where they are free to roam at will. Textiles, woods and paper are most at danger from pests. At the first sign of pests action should be taken. Pests must be eliminated quickly or they will multiply. Seek professional help for removing pests such as woodworm from antique pieces. Be very aware of pieces coming from outside sources and what they may be carrying into your home. As always professional pest services can be consulted when problems arise.
Improper cleaning and amateur repair has caused many good intentioned owners to alter or damage their antiques. Generally the best rule for cleaning antiques is that less is more. The current movement today is to appreciate antiques in their original “old” condition. That means keeping patinas on metals, not refinishing furniture, having some age cracks, etc.
This 200 year old brass drum body has mellowed to a rich green patina. The paint on the top bands which was once dark blue has faded to a blue green.
There are differing schools of though but unless the aging process is endangering the stability of a piece, your antique should be allowed to grow old gracefully.
Cleaning should be limited to removing surface dust and dirt. Avoid replacing “dirty,” damaged or old parts of an antique. Collectors generally want to see antiques intact. Original broken pieces that can be expertly repaired are better than new replacements. Small parts that may be broken or detached should be recovered and saved so that a professional can reattach them. If replacements are made to keep a piece working, the replacement part should be marked and dated and the original part should be retained. This will assist with any later sale and can deflect any accusations of antique fraud or dating mistakes. Save all documentation of repairs made. Professionals should be sought for any repairs or major cleanings and they can be consulted in areas where cleaning and repair may improve or detract from the value of a piece. Specific materials making up an antique may require differing types of care that a professional will take into account.
The final topic of conservation that we will discuss is the preservation of the provenance of an antique piece. Provenance is the story behind a piece. These stories place a piece into historic context and can greatly increase the value. If an owner can show that a piece belonged to a famous (or infamous) personage or was used at some point in history, collectors may clamour to add such a piece to their collections. Provenance is preserved by gathering and retaining documentation. Owners who acquire pieces should record when and where they got a piece and how much they paid. Pieces passed down through families should have accompanying stories written down. Persons supplying the history should be documented and ideally they should sign their names. Pieces being sold or passed outside a family should have documentation notarized Any sales information should be kept and old pictures showing a piece, articles about a piece, or auction information should be kept with an antique. The detective work you apply and evidence you gather can mean the difference between a common piece and an extraordinary find.
We are the guardians of our antiques, and they are a part of our heritage. Mechanization and modern industry have all but eliminated the master craftsman from our everyday lives. Following these few rules of conservation and understanding your antique pieces will allow them to survive to be passed on to further generations. So surround yourself with beautiful things that bring you pleasure and remember that you hold a little piece history in your hands.
Caring for Antiques: A Guide to Handling, Cleaning, Display and Restoration
Southebys. Conran Octopus Limited 1996.
ISBN 185029 867
Housekeeping with Antiques
McGrath, Lee Parr
Dodd, Mead & Co., New York. 1971