Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Proper Way To Store Antiques

I did an appraisal this week and had a first for me. The civil war era Starr revolver that I picked up to appraise was still loaded with ball and powder! It's common to find items not stored to their advantage, and this gun is no exception. The owners had no idea, but it makes me wonder who was going to take that shot. There were several other items that weren't stored properly and so I want to share what I told this client and what everyone should know about the proper way to store Antiques.

Guns: First do not store guns loaded, second assume any gun you handle is loaded, even one from the civil war. Do not store guns long term in leather or canvas cases or in holsters, they can collect moisture and rust the weapon. Rust can not be removed without damaging the finish except by a professional. Any weapon should be cleaned with a commercial gun cleaning fluid to remove any residual gun powder, dirt etc. Then wipe the metal pieces down with a light gun or sewing machine oil. Store in an area that does not have extremes of hot, cold or moisture. Anytime the gun is handled, wipe it down with a lightly oiled cloth, the salt in your sweat can rust/etch fingerprints right into the metal if left alone.

Paper: Store paper flat (not folded) or rolled, always using acid free tissue or matting to separate the item from acidic things like wood, cardboard, newspaper, or wrapping paper. If you must use tape on paper (not recommended) use special acid free tape. Mylar or plastic holders are ok but you have to be careful that moisture does not accumulate inside and cause mold problems. Do not store paper in direct sunlight, where there is high moisture or where there are extremes of hot and cold. Matting on old framed prints is usually acidic and can cause your art to turn brown. It pays to re-matt old prints with acid free matting. Old linen paper has low acid but modern paper tends to have a lot of acid in it and will deteriorate from it’s own internal acid over time. These can be de-acidified by a paper conservator, check with a local library or museum to find a good conservator in your area. Acid free paper, tape, matting and etc. can be bought at art supply stores like Aaron Brothers or Michael’s. Old framed prints sometimes have wood backing holding in to the glass. Always remove or separate this with acid free backing. I have a wonderful Civil War era print where a knot in the wood backing stained through to the front, causing a major loss in value.

Material: First clean your items before storing. I can remember an old Farm Auction in the Midwest where a tablecloth was put away with bits of food still on it. Originally that was cleanable but after years of storage, the stains were so set they could not be removed. Large items like quilts and tablecloths should be stored rolled if possible. If stored folded, do not put heavy weight on top and they should be refolded (with folds in different places) at least twice a year. Acid free tissue paper should be used to shield them from touching wood, or other acidic items. Plastic containers are a modern day favorite storage item. However, there are two kinds of plastic: good and bad. Polyethylene, which is stable, or inert, is a good plastic. Polypropylene releases gases as it breaks down, so it's bad for storing linens or any antique. Dry-cleaning bags, for instance, are made out of polypropylene. They react with linen, becoming sticky over time. For larger storage containers, choose semi-opaque containers made out of polyethylene. Avoid moth balls, they release poisonous gases and smell bad besides. You can buy oil of cedar from many drug stores and this not only has a pleasant smell but it’s vapor kills young moth larvae. However, do not apply the oil directly to your antique materials. Using lavender to repel clothes moths is an old homemaker's trick. Sachets filled with lavender (and/or laced with its oil) and suspended in your closet or tucked in your drawers are said to protect woolens. They will also leave a pleasant scent behind. Lavender will not, however, kill moth eggs or larvae, so be sure the space is free of them first.

Silver & Silverplate: Items should not be stored tarnished, tarnish is corrosion (like rust) and will just continue if left alone. If you use a cream polish be sure and get all the old cleaner out of crevices, with an old toothbrush (careful, nylon bristles can scratch silver), if left it will corrode the silver. Use treated bags to store items if possible, these have an anti-tarnish chemical in the cloth. To keep your silver from tarnishing, keep the air from it and do not touch it (if possible) before you put it away. Museum curators use white cotton gloves when handling silver; try that, or hold the pieces with your drying towel as you put them in their air free case. If the silver is to be stored for a long time, plastic may be put around the treated bags, but never directly on the silver. Some plastic wrap such as Saran Wrap, contains sulfur that tarnishes silver. Some are ok, but other plastic film wraps applied directly to the silver can cause permanent damage to the silver surface so it is best to be safe and not apply it directly.

Polish or don’t polish silver?: The modern, short-cut cleaning products do just what they say they do, clean. But to polish silver, to get it to really shine, rubbing is required. For most silver it is better to clean than not clean, then polishing to a shine is more a matter of taste. However, there are exceptions. If a piece is over 100 years old, has historical significance, or is extremely rare you should ask an expert before cleaning or polishing. Old historic silver should have an overall grayish tone not a bright, new or chrome-like look. This can affect value as much as 50% in extreme cases.

Glass or China: I have packed and unpacked thousands of boxes of fragile glass and china. I have scrounged through broken down filthy boxes and found incredible works of art and I have painstakingly opened bubble-wrapped, foam filled heavy cardboard boxes only to find a rare one of a kind treasure cracked and devalued. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. From lots of experience, I have my own personal packing system. I take each individual piece and using several sheets of clean "mover’s" paper, I start from the corner, wrapping diagonally and continuously tucking in overlapping edges. I have found that a tightly packed box with plenty of cushioning between items is the best way for me to keep items from breaking. Don't forget extra cushioning material in the bottom, sides and top. I also mark on the outside what is in a box or make a master list so I do not have to unpack several boxes to find one item. For long term storage where boxes are stacked on top of each other, plastic tubs work best, since cardboard boxes can deteriorate and lose their strength. Collapsing boxes can allow the weight of the boxes above to damage your packed items. Do not ignore the affects of stacking weight. I have found a bowl broken in the middle of a stack of bowls in a box. The weight on top of the box put enough constant pressure on the stack inside, that the bowl in the middle which did not have as much cushioning broke, while the others were ok.

Note: When packing items for mail or shipping they have to be able to withstand a drop from waist height to concrete. Both the US Post Office and shippers like Federal Express use mechanical unloading with conveyor belts where items at the end fall off into a bag on the ground and then other items fall on top of them. If your item is the first in a new holding bag it falls to the concrete and the next item falls directly on top, so pack accordingly.

If anyone has a special type of item they want to know how to store, I will gladly help with that information.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Antiques 101A

I have been an Antique dealer and appraiser for 32 years now and many people have asked me where they can go and get classes to become an appraiser or help them be a better collector. While there are some colleges with courses, they are few and far between. When I first started there were no courses and darn few reference books of any kind. Instead I learned by collecting and by talking to advanced collectors and dealers, who loved antiques like I did. These people were willing to share their hard gained knowledge with me just because of that mutual love of antiques.

So part of the reason for this blog is to pay them back by sharing some of my knowledge with others like they did. I want to reach people who care about antiques to share more than just the mechanics of identifying old from new, or how to value something. I also have selfish motives for doing this. I think the more people know about antiques the better they will be as customers, and it will help keep the whole antiques and collectibles market healthy.


Antique Glass Basics

We have evidence of antique glass beads in Egyptian tombs going back to 4500 BC. The basic formula for glass is silica sand and heat. If you have a big enough bonfire on a beach you can melt some of the sand and turn it to glass. That is probably what gave the idea to the first glass makers. The problem is it takes a lot of heat, about 2400 F. So glass making required a kiln or furnace to be able to reach high enough heat to be practical.

By Roman Times, there was glass manufacturing all over the world with several areas mass producing everything from bottles to decorative items. Glass tended to be high-end, like perfume bottles, while pottery filled the low end needs like food storage. The early Egyptian glass pieces were just lumps of glass that were hollowed out or worked by chipping or abrasion similar to how natural rock was used.

Eventually blowing glass into a shape was invented and improved over time. To blow glass a metal hollow tube gets a “gather” of molten glass on one end out of the furnace. Air pressure from a man blowing into the tube causes an air bubble to form in the center of the gather and by turning the tube and continued blowing the bubble grows and a hollow vessel is formed. Continued heating and manipulation with wet wood paddles, and other tools allows this hollow object to be shaped. It is broken off the blow pipe and cooled or it is attached to a metal “pontil” rod by a small bit of molten glass for additional shaping.

Free blowing and shaping was time consuming to learn and it took years of practice to become a master blower. This was fine for luxury items but for mass production this was a problem. To speed things up, molds were made and the glass was mouth blown into them. This took far less training and experience and thus was faster and cheaper and allowed the first type of mass production of glass items. By the 1820’s mold blowing machines were in use, which lasted until the 1840’s when mechanically pressed glass machines started to replace them.

This basic information helps when you are trying to identify what type of glass you have:
* Hand blown glass will show some variations in thickness and shape.
* It will usually have a pontil mark if it was shaped after initial blowing.
* The left over glass from the pontil rod is broken off and can be left rough, ground smooth or reheated so rough/sharp edges are round.
* All or most all American and English antique blown glass have ground pontils, mid to low priced continental European glass was more likely to be left rough or fire treated.
* Mouth mold blown glass (oldest) will have mold marks up the sides, though tops and lips tend to have hand shaping that obscures the marks.
* Look for more variations in pattern and thickness than machine mold blown pieces.
* Also look for “whittle” marks on the glass, these are streaky lines in the glass, (slightly indented) that are caused by a cold/wet mold quickly cooling the hot glass.
* Machine blown glass usually has 3 or 4 mold seams and a ground pontil on the base.
* Pieces with 2 mold marks tend to be pressed glass or late machine blown pieces.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Changing Antiques Market

The Antique Market has changed drastically in the last 5 - 10 years. Lots of dealers and collectors have discussed this trying to figure out what caused the changes and what it means for the long run. I just want to put in my 2 cents worth on this subject.


The internet has been both good and bad for the antiques trade. It has given a means to reach specialized markets for dealers and for collectors to find items scarce in their local area. Unfortunately it has also taken away some of the mystic and rarity at the same time.

When the only place to find an item was in a local antique shop/show and it took time and hunting to find, it made that antique stand out over new pieces that anybody could have. Now with the internet, duplicate items can often be found with a lot less time or effort required, eliminating some of the WOW factor of owning antiques.

The other area that has been hurt is great bargain buys. Don’t expect to go out and find very many antiques at a garage sale any more. When the only place to sell was to a dealer or at a garage sale/flea market there were lots of antiques around locally and some great buys. Now because of the availability, most people put the old items they have on an internet auction (E-bay, etc.) rather than take a chance someone will get a deal. That leads directly to the Antiques Road Show affect.


The Antiques Road Show gives the impression that any thing old is expensive. People overlook the fact that they have thousands of items to look at and only show details of the top 20 or so of those. As an appraiser I have participated in this type of event and know how many common collectibles and out and out junk is brought in. Dealers and serious collectors know this but the general public seldom sees the junk (not good television), instead they see the cream of the crop with once in a while a fake for educational purposes.

The affect of this is interesting, making many non-collectors think anything old is worth money. I have gone to garage sales where people have priced old but common collectibles for 3 or 4 times what they are worth. I have quit telling them that they are way over priced, since they all think I am trying to get the price down so I can steal it from them. ( Actually had someone use that word, I “wanted to pay a lower price and steal it from them” ). At other times when I have made a fair offer for an item I have been told it is worth more and they will sell it on E-bay if they can not get their price. As a result I seldom go to garage sales anymore. Especially with the cost of gas today.


So what does it all mean? The market has definitely changed but good items at reasonable prices still are selling. Though the prices are down from what they were a few years ago. The high end of the market such as rare glass and pottery, good art, and historically important items are still strong. What the antiques market needs is new buyers. But it also needs educated (in Antiques) buyers. That is what I want to do by using this blog to educate people about antiques so they will be better collectors and buyers. I believe that the more educated we become, the more it will energize or reinvigorate the antiques market.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Joy of Antiques

Antiques are one of the joys of my life and through this BLOG I hope to be able to share some of that enjoyment and maybe spread the infection a little bit at the same time. My attachment to antiques is based on a number of different things.

First is Artistry: Many antiques are one of a kind pieces of art that expresses something from the maker to you. And I am not talking just about traditional one of a kind art items like a painting. Many of the multiple “manufactured” items also end up being unique one-of-a-kind items. Blown glass is an example of one of these multiple but “unique” kind of pieces. Even when a glass blower is going to make large numbers of the exact same item, because of the process each one ends up being one-of-a-kind. There are slight variations in colors, alignments, thickness, dimensions and craftsmanship that makes each one different and unique, if you take the time to really look and see those variations.

Second is Craftsmanship: This is related to artistry. Though the artistic concept may have been someone else’s, the ability to transform a concept to an actual product is an art in itself. This even relates to many factory made items since they often required a level of hand work that is unthinkable today. An example would be a glass cutting, you start out as an apprentice and it would take 20 -30 years of experience to finally become a master cutter. Look at a cut glass bowl, and remember each cut was made by hand holding the bowl against a thin copper abrasive wheel. The cutter has to hold and rotate the odd shape of the bowl to the wheel to get a straight line, even depth, and correct alignment for other cuts. One slight misstep and the whole thing has to be thrown away. The British museum has a Cameo glass platter made by John Northwood that after 8 years of work was near completion when it was dropped and cracked through. It was kept in the family since it was not sellable and eventually ended up in the museum since it is such an amazing piece. But this shows what could and did happen when hand work is involved.

Third is History: All antiques are connected to or a part of history, but only some in special ways or with special meanings. To hold a Civil War Saber that was used in battle, to feel the weight and power of it and remember it was used against another soldier, a fellow American maybe even that person's relative gives a connection that can evoke thoughts and emotions far beyond the simple object itself. It can cause personal connections to the people of that time or cause a search to understand how and why it ended up being needed and used in the first place. That’s a dramatic form but even a simple object like a dinner plate can connect you to history. Think of the family that ate off of it, what their life was like, how it was the same or different from our own, even as expressed by the piece itself. Was it a piece bought by the rich or the poor, was it for everyday use or only for special occasions, why was this type of design popular, etc.

Forth is Love: This is the only word I can think of to describe what I mean -- the personal connections to objects by individuals. This is expressed in the Artistry, Craftsmanship and History to some degree but it is beyond those. It goes to the attachments and meanings these pieces had to the people in the past. Our world today has far less connections to our possessions than ever before. We have a disposable mentality. However, in the past the average person bought items thinking this is something I am going to live with and pass on to my children and they did. So a simple dinner plate can include the many hands that washed and dried it after 100 years worth of meals and the sentimental attachment that can add to the piece. For some items their survival is a matter of chance but for many they were saved because they meant something to somebody. For me when I see an antique I see beyond the item itself, somehow part of the previous owner has become a part of it, making it something more than it was originally.

I hope to share some of these things with others of like mind and maybe to educate and bring into the fold a few new antiquers.