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.

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