Read This Before Cleaning Your Antiques

Cleanliness may sometimes be close to Godliness and, for the collector, this can present a dilemma.

When it comes to antiques and collectibles, caution should be exercised before cleaning. Many a fine antique has been ruined by an amateur restorer who has an over-zealous need to achieve that “just like new” look.

I have seen otherwise beautiful table tops deeply grooved by excessive use of circular sanders and oil paintings that have been washed by bleach to pictorial obscurity. Fabulous copper and bronze statues and sculptures that have been scratched so deeply by scouring pads and steel wool that the surface resembles the ice after a hockey game.

Satinwood clock cases that have been blackened by soaking them in kerosene. Coins that have been washed in acid and silverware that has become pockmarked by being sandblasted.

All of which resulted in many a tear – not just by the damage caused to the items but also by the injuries that resulted from such potentially dangerous techniques.

Often the beauty of an antique is its aged look. The accumulation of years of polishing, loving care and gentle use produce what is often referred to as a “patina.”

The patina is  a vital part of the value of an antique. This patina, this aged look however, is not dirt, rust, mold and mildew, nor as some would think, is it just plain filth!

A table, for example, that has been lovingly waxed and polished acquires a soft looking gentle sheen. The patina is what gives the wood its warm glow, it is what gives it a depth of finish.

The patina shows that the piece has been well cared for and while retaining its original finish it also shows that it has been used and cherished. The piece with this mysterious patina does not look bright and shiny; it has that certain almost indescribable something about it.

Professional restorers do their best to imitate patina. Their job is to refinish a piece so that even an expert would have to carefully examine it for authenticity and originality.

If you see an obviously old piece that looks like new, then chances are that it has been refinished. And while re-finishing can give new life to an otherwise tatty piece, poor re-finishing can totally erase any of its intrinsic and financial value.

A good restorer knows that to do a good job they must use the same or similar methods that were originally used to finish the item.

Among other things, good restorers know not to use Phillips head screws (invented 1934) on pieces that are over 100 years old. They know that oil paintings should not be touched-up using acrylic paints. They know that antique clocks should not have quartz battery operated movement, that Victorian furniture was hand finished not spray finished, and that pottery should not be stuck together with silicone caulking.

While dust, dirt and grime are all naturally occurring, no one wants to eat from dirty plates nor look at scratched furniture or use tarnished silverware, so here are a few basic pointers for care and conservation:

  • Pottery, porcelain and delicate dinnerware: hand wash using warm (not hot) water with mild detergent. The extreme temperatures of dish washers can cause the glaze on pottery to craze and can also cause crystal glassware to shatter.
  • Silverware will stay remarkably clean from daily use. However, tarnished silver is best hand washed in warm soapy water before using a good quality silver polish and then buffed with a soft cotton (not synthetic) cloth.
  • Domestic antique wooden furniture was originally sealed with either a varnish or a French polish. It may seem old fashioned, but the use of coasters and heat pads on tables will prevent unwanted marks and will protect your surfaces. To further maintain a really good finish, simply wax twice a year with a quality wax polish and then buff to a sheen. In general, regular dusting and buffing will be sufficient to maintain woodwork. However, contrary to what the TV commercials tell us, because furniture surfaces are already sealed, silicone spray polishes do not “feed the wood.” Silicone sprays put a sticky residue on the surface which in turn attracts dust so that you will again have to apply more spray which in turn attracts more dust and so on.
  • When cleaning the glass on paintings and pictures, put the glass cleaner directly onto the cleaning cloth. Do not spray the cleaner onto the glass as this can cause it to weep under the glass and ruin the painting beneath. Spraying glass cleaner onto a wall-mounted picture often results in overspray which can cause damage it to the wall behind behind it and the furniture beneath.

If in doubt, leave your item alone until you have consulted someone who is knowledgeable.

Most reputable dealers will willingly advise you of the best course of action to take with regard to cleaning and restoration.

How do you know if the dealer knows what they are doing? Well take a look at what they offer for sale. Is it clean, well kept and in good order? Do they display the kind of pride of ownership that you consider suitable for items that you would you like to have in your home?