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How to Save Collectibles From Fire, Water Damage

Collectibles damaged by scorching or floods can often be restored, at least partially

With news of fires and floods grabbing headlines so often these days, collectors of items such as books, manuscripts, posters, documents and maps should consider the issue of disaster recovery.

Even if fire doesn't completely destroy collections, it can damage them significantly. Items can be scorched, singed, embrittled, discolored, or soiled by soot and smoke. Water used to extinguish fires can cause staining, discoloration, and ink or color "bleeding." If untreated, mold can grow. Floods and broken pipes, damaged roofs, leaky air conditioning, garden irrigation, and human carelessness can also cause water damage.

One way to reduce losses is to be sure that your collections are adequately insured. For example, check if they are covered by your homeowner's policy or whether you need separate coverage.

But, if tragedy strikes, here are some steps that can be taken to minimize the damage to items themselves.

Fire Damage

Fire damage is usually irreversible, but it is often possible to remove some of the surface soot and char.

For rare and high-value items, consult a conservator who may help in preserving value. The

American Institute of Conservation offers guidelines for selecting a conservator. Look for a conservator who specializes in rare books or works on paper.

Some of the following methods can be used to mitigate damage so you can continue to enjoy your items, even if their value is irreparably harmed.

If you undertake the repairs yourself, find a clean space to work and thoroughly vacuum the area with a machine that has a HEPA filter.

To remove soot, the fire-damaged paper should be completely dry and in good enough condition to vacuum. Don't use a dust cloth; vacuum the items carefully on low speed to remove dust and ash. Put cheesecloth or pantyhose over the end of the hose and secure it with a rubber band to prevent sucking up pieces you might want to keep.

Remove soot from paper by using chemical sponges, erasers or a dry cleaner, such as Absorene Paper and Book Cleaner, available from archival supply companies.

Do not scrub paper; this will damage it. Use chemical sponges in a gentle, dabbing motion. Chemical sponges are good for a quick cleanup, but it has been reported that they leave a residue film and smell which impedes other types of cleaning.

Erasers or a dry cleaner also need to be used with a gentle brushing motion. It's best to use an artist's brush to remove the rubbings. Paper should be placed on clean white paper or a blotter and brushed off gently, starting in the center and brushing out.

To clean up char damage, vacuum as much loose material up as possible, being careful not to suck up book parts that you want to keep. Trim charred edges using paper shears, a razor blade or scissors. Consider the aesthetics of a damaged item before returning it to a shelf. You can improve appearances by rebinding or adding a cover or jacket.

There are several things you can try to help lessen musty odors in books and papers. First, try fresh air. Set up as many fans as possible and turn up the ventilation system. It the area is secure, open doors and windows (weather permitting) and let it blow for as long as possible. Set large flat pans of activated charcoal and/or baking soda around the room and replace every eight to 12 hours. Do this for 24 to 48 hours.

If fresh air fails, stand the books up and fan them open inside a box with a lid. Place baking soda and/or charcoal or a strong-smelling deodorant in the box with the books. Soak a sponge in the deodorant and set it in a dish in the box. Replace the deodorizer every 48 hours until the smell is gone.


A moldy "smell" is not the problem -- it is an indicator that there is/was a problem. Getting rid of the smell doesn't get rid of the problem. You need to discover if you have an active mold infestation (gushy, slimy stuff) or inactive (dried, powdery) mold on your books waiting for enough moisture to be able to bloom. Inspect your books and other paper items carefully, and if you can't find any mold, check carpets, drapes and vents.

Books with evidence of mold (active or inactive) should be removed from the room to the outside. A short exposure to sunlight may rid the books of the smell, but remember light damages many materials (it can cause fading, for example). Follow the instructions above for removing odors. Unfortunately, there may always be a faint odor to the item. If mold is present, wear a respirator or disposable filter mask, as some mold species are toxic. Wash your hands with antibacterial soap after handling materials with mold contamination.

Water Damage

The most consistently troublesome damage to books and other paper items is caused by water. Two facts can be stated with certainty about water damaged paper items:

In the presence of oxygen, they will start to swell and continue to distort until stabilized.

In the presence of temperatures over 70 degrees and 65% relative humidity they will develop mildew after 72 hours, and sometimes before.

Additionally, coated paper can be lost if it is not attended within six to eight hours of exposure. Books that are more than half wet should be allowed to drain. Place the book on its edge on a sheet or towel and place small pieces of sponge under the edge to allow water to drain. Do not fan open the pages and continue until water is no longer draining. With documents, blot excess water off -- do not use newspaper, because ink can transfer, and do not blot handwritten ink or fragile surfaces, which can lift off print. Do not attempt to separate individual items while very wet. Leave stacks no higher than ¼" to dry. If pages can be separated safely, they can be interleaved using absorbent paper towels or waxed paper. Change the interleaving until the item is dry.

After this, the book or document can be frozen. Freezing does not dry the book but it prevents further damage from water absorption. A book may safely remain frozen for weeks, even months. Wrap the book in waxed paper and place in a freezer. Freezing slows the growth of mold spores and, if frozen within six to eight hours, coated paper can often be protected from loss. After the books have frozen, ice can be brushed off and the books can air dry.

When air drying, use fans to provide maximum circulation, and during the thawing process blot off all excess water. Fan books open and stand them on their top or bottom edges. As the books dry, turn them upside-down to the opposite edge every few hours. Place a sheet of white paper towels larger than the pages between the front and rear cover and adjacent pages before standing the books on edge. Replace the interleaving as it becomes saturated. When the book is no longer wet, but still cool to the touch, close it and place it on a surface with a slight weight such as a brick to keep distortion to a minimum.


For more information about how to treat your damaged paper collectibles, see

The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers

by Margot Rosenberg and Bern Marcowitz.

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

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an eBay Business