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How to Avoid Ruining Your Antiques

Drop that dustcloth, or else you could drop the value.

You've spent your valuable time and money to collect treasured antiques.

They're probably displayed throughout your home or office, with more precious objects stored in drawers or cabinets.

But no matter how clean the environment in which they're housed, antiques get dusty, dirty and even greasy. Old photographs begin to fade; marble sculptures start to discolor. What can you do?

Before you break out the polish or duster, realize that it's very possible to ruin an antique -- and significantly lessen its value -- if you don't know the best mode for upkeep.

To keep from making a costly mistake, here are the most common ways antiques get damaged, and how you can prevent these problems.

Condition With Care

No owner would intentionally harm an antique, but certain actions to improve condition can really cut value. Consider the following examples from a range of antiques dealers.

For a Loetz extruded-handle vase from about 1900, the top was "cut down" in size to remove chips around the rim. Repaired value: $300 to $500. Mint-condition value: $15,000 to $18,000. Similarly, on a Tiffany Lilly Pond desk lamp, the bronze base was overpolished, removing the original baked-on ornamental patina. Repaired value: $20,000 to $25,000. Mint-condition value: $30,000 to $40,000.

Likewise, damage by inaction can be just as punishing. A 1925 first-edition copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's

The Great Gatsby

without its dust jacket is worth $1,500; with dust jacket, the value is $10,000. Proper protection here is the best method to preserve value -- for example, keeping the book out of direct light, so sunlight doesn't fade and destroy the dust jacket.

A late 1800s Albert Bierstadt panoramic landscape engraving marred with foxing -- brown spots or stains resembling paw prints -- is in a similar position. Damaged value: $4,000. Mint-condition value: $6,000. Unlike the dust jacket, foxing can be corrected by a professional conservator. The cost can be substantial but the increased value, in some instances, could justify it.

To find a professional conservator, contact the

Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (202-452-9545).

What Not to Do

Here, then, is what to avoid when caring for your precious antiques.

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  • Improper cleaning: Before you clean any antique, do some research on how it will impact the value of a piece. Cleaning some antiques will make them more desirable and valuable, but that's not always the case. If you scrub away the patina, which according to renown antique dealer Israel Sack, shows "everything that happens to an object over the course of time," you may be devaluing your piece. A scratch on a table top, the loss of moisture in paint, the crackling of a finish or a glaze in ceramics, or the gentle wear patterns on the edge of a plate, can add value and should not be cleaned away or repaired.Polishing off the patina from a Roycroft copper lamp will greatly diminish its value, while washing a piece of Depression glass with soap and water won't matter at all. So before you do anything, ask a dealer or advanced collector about the items you're thinking of cleaning.
  • Displaying in sunlight: Several objects, such as old paper, vintage textiles and early plastics, can be damaged by direct sunlight. Photographs will crack and yellow, colors in fabrics will fade and plastics will melt. Always avoid displaying items in direct sunlight: Either showcase them in dimly lit areas, or for only short periods of time in bright rooms.
  • Improper storage: For many collectors, items can quickly overrun the available display space within a home. Be aware of proper storage to avoid damage to items: Keep pieces out of damp areas (such as basements) and areas with temperature extremes (such as attics).
  • Refinishing furniture: Viewers of Antiques Roadshow know that refinishing antique furniture will diminish its value. Removing the original finish is a no-no; a gentle cleaning will do just fine. If you have a piece of common furniture, it can be refinished. If you don't know whether you have furniture made by a notable craftsman or manufacturer (regardless of age) or a common piece, talk with an expert before you do anything. Local museum curators can often help and even recommend a good restorer.
  • Amateur restoration Don't do restoration yourself -- even if the cost savings seem significant, it's never a good idea. Leave restoration projects to professionals, no matter how simple they are.

Tips for Preservation

For most collectibles, there are simple steps you


take to ensure a long, valuable life.

For pottery, use a new, soft paintbrush to dust the piece or blow dust out of crevices with a hairdryer. If the piece is completely glazed, you may wash it in lukewarm soapy water and air dry. To clean unglazed pieces, gently wipe with a damp cloth. Warning: Never soak any ceramic or porcelain item -- minute breaks in the glaze will absorb water and dark lines will develop.

For sterling silver and silverplate items, remember that the more they're used, the easier it is to keep them from tarnishing. Tarnish is caused by high humidity -- when possible, store and display silver at no more than 45% to 50% humidity.

Since this is hard to monitor (gauges are available at home repair stores, though), keep silver out of damp environments such as basements or attics. If you store your silver in a display cabinet, camphor blocks can be added to help prevent tarnish (just don't let the blocks touch the silver). You can also purchase antitarnish papers or cloths which can be placed in cabinets, or antitarnish bags to put individual pieces inside.

Clean silver by dusting with a clean cotton cloth, then wash with warm water and a mild dishwashing liquid. If polishing, use a soft cotton cloth and a nonabrasive commercial silver cleaner or polish. Make sure all the polish is completely removed when you're done. Warning: Excessive polishing can wear down the finish -- especially on silverplate -- and remove the patina, so don't overdo it.

For furniture pieces, John W.L. Kitchen, retired Head of Conservation, Furniture and Woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, advises:

  • Minimize humidity fluctuations (70% is too high, 30% is too low), which will damage joints. Excessive dampness also promotes growth of mold, which causes staining.
  • Keep out of direct sunlight, which damages veneers and bleaches the wood.
  • Avoid dragging items, and prevent surface damage by never sliding objects across them.
  • Wipe off spilled liquids immediately to avoid spotting or warping.
  • Don't put oil on stained woods, as it can turn the surface black. Instead, clean with a good paste that contains beeswax.

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Malcolm Katt is the owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also co-authored the second edition of

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