TO CLEAN OR NOT TO CLEAN? AND, IF SO, HOW TO CLEAN?
My friend Barbara asked me today if I wouldn’t mind blogging about when one should or shouldn’t clean one’s antiques and collectibles and — if possible — how one should clean certain things properly.
I’ll try to cover some of the major areas here, so please bear with me.
No doubt we’ve all heard the stories about the Connecticut lady who stripped a rare, mid-18th century highboy and (in doing so) stripped a quarter of a million dollars off the value. On a local level, I myself once saw a $25K to $30K late 19th century French bronze whose over-zealous owner had (!!!) polished off all the patination with a Dremel and some jeweler’s rouge, thus leaving her with a $500 heap of gleaming scrap metal.
THE GOLDEN RULE: Don’t clean ANYTHING until you’ve consulted an expert. Barring an expert appraiser or world class dealer, well, at least consult a knowledgeable local antiques dealer, or (barring that) read up as much as you can on the subject.
One never does more than dust bronzes. (You see, the patina on a bronze is deliberate. Good patinas require great artistry and contribute highly to the value of the bronzes they’re placed on.)
Leave period furniture alone, too. (That said, there’s a world of difference between a fine piece of period furniture and a mass produced chiffarobe made in Grand Rapids, Michigan ca. 1940. But, again, consult an expert first.) Along with furniture, leave treen (wooden kitchenwares and other practical wooden wares) alone. Their patinas are a HUGE part of both their charm and value.
Insofar as silver, gold, palladium and platinum are concerned, consider a) the quality of the polish used and b) the gentleness of your work. (Never use anything abrasive — certainly no Dremels, steel wool, sandpapers etc. And yes, I have seen all of the above used, much to our horror.) I prefer soft German polishes such as Simichrome and Wenol, and only use very soft cloths. (Old jersey t-shirts work well, as do chamois cloths.) Never, ever polish mixed metals, nor damascene work. Be very careful when polishing vermeil (gold on silver) and niello wares. (Look it up.) Avoid cheap, chalky grocery store polishes like the plague. (Dishwashers, too, and harsh detergents.) And those gimmicky magnesium plate/tin foil contraptions? Unadulterated evil — avoid them at all costs. They are horrific little buggers that can ruin your silverware.
Linens and vintage clothing? Use tiny amounts of Woolite very sparingly, and rinse thoroughly in club soda. Block dry. (If you don’t know how to block dry, look it up. It’s very simple.) Antique embroidery, samplers and other very delicate period textiles, though, fall into a category best left to the professional cleaners and restorers, though, as do good Oriental rugs.
Toys (especially tin lithograph toys) are best cleaned with nothing more than a dry baby toothbrush or small paintbrush. Mohair bears (especially vintage Steiff pieces and other comparable quality bears) are best cleaned with nothing more than a spritz of Febreze and a slightly damp washcloth. ”Sleep” eyes on dolls can be cleaned with rubbing alcohol or vodka — just one drop per eye. Allow the eye to open and close thoroughly with the alcohol on the pupil.
Alcohol, by the way, also does wonders for cleaning vintage perfume bottles on the inside. Alcohol is also the preferred cleaner for vintage Lucite, and even modern Plexiglas. NEVER use ammonia-based cleaners on Lucite or Plexiglass, as they will permanently “cloud” your items.
Costume jewelry? Baby toothbrushes and small paintbrushes only. (Most costume mounts are highly prone to water damage.) Fine jewelry? You can clean it yourself, but we recommend that you take it to a reputable jeweler instead.
Porcelain and pottery are best cleaned with tiny amounts of clean water (preferably distilled) and very mild detergents. (I favor Ivory.) Use baby toothbrushes for delicate applied work, and small paintbrushes. (Baby toothbrushes, by the way, are also excellent for getting detail work on silver and gold.)
Pottery dinnerware (e.g., Fiestaware, Franciscan pottery dinnerware, cookie jars, Vernon Ware etc.) often gets what we in the trade call “aluminum scratches.” Aluminum scratches are best cleaned with a minute amount of Cameo Aluminum Cleaner and a little warm tap water. Use the pads of your fingers and work in circular motion. Rinse with a damp washcloth and dry with a tea towel. Never get Hummel figurines wet, by the way — they are highly porous. Also, never wrap bisque (a.k.a. biscuit) wares or jasperware in newspaper — these wares, too, are highly porous and will get nasty (and impossible to remove) stains from the newsprint itself. (Newspaper is pretty awful to wrap with, anyway — the sulfur compounds in the newsprint can pit and ultimately destroy good silver, too.)
Finally, we come to glassware. Whether crystal or art glass, cut glass or crystal stemware, I recommend a mild solution of Windex and distilled water. (ROOM TEMPERATURE ONLY, FRIENDS.) A word to the wise: extreme temperature changes damage far more glassware than rough handling ever does. (This is particularly true of high lead content crystal and Brilliant Period cut glass.)
As a general rule of thumb, again, remember: ask an expert first. Then, follow his or her instructions to the letter. Read up — become informed. There’s no need in taking a great antique or collectible and rendering it virtually worthless just because you decided to go into a cleaning frenzy.
If you have any questions about how and when to clean (and what to clean with), please don’t hesitate to contact me by clicking on “leave a comment” at www.okcestatesales.com. You can also reach me via e-mail at email@example.com.
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I have a Damascene camel (silver in steel) from Meknes, Morocco. The silver isn’t shiny anymore. How can I clean it?
We suggest Simichrome or Flitz for cleaning damascene pieces, Sandy, but only modern damascene.
Please show any antique damascene pieces to a professional appraiser of personal property before attempting to clean them. (Same with mixed metal pieces, be they Japanese, Mexican, English, French, or American.) You wouldn’t, after all, want to damage deliberate patination.
Matt McNeil, ISA CAPP
I have a wood framed tin lithograph called the Brook Hill Dog. It was done in 1911 how should it be cleaned. Is a damp cloth cleaning ok, if not what?
I’d dust the piece with a dry cloth or feather duster and leave all moisture out of the picture.
Matt McNeil, ISA CAPP
How would you clean an old painting on wood. A lot of older farm machinery had painting done on some of the wood parts. I’m not sure what the base of the paint was. Maybe lead, or milk, but I assume lead. How can I tell the difference, and how would I clean the 75 years of bird crap off, yet not wipe away any of the paint?
A quick patch test (available online for very little) will determine whether or not lead is present in the paint in question.
If I were you, I would contact an art gallery for the name of a restoration expert before I proceeded.
Matt McNeil, ISA CAPP