Conservation of Personal Property
While in a client’s home, looking at items considered important to that individual, questions arise as to the proper care of those items. What are the biggest mistakes that I see in the care and storage of those items?
Items stored in the attics and basements of the home. Ideal museum storage spaces have climate controls and monitors for relative humidity. Temperatures are usually set for 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 47 to 55 percent relative humidity. While the majority of homes do not have such systems, we should think where in our homes would come closest to these ideals. It should be apparent that most basements are too humid and attic spaces are too hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Neither area is appropriate for items that we want to keep for future generations.
Silver not being cared for properly. What did our ancestors use to polish silver? They used their silver and washed it frequently. Washing silver is often the best way to keep tarnish from forming. Direct sunlight causes tarnish to develop more frequently. Do not use “silver dips,” as this damages silver. Silver polish actually wears away the silver and should be used sparingly on Sheffield plate and electroplate. Silver items should not be sealed in plastic bags because this traps moisture, which will cause tarnish and corrosion. Specially designed bags made from sulfur-free baize and impregnated with tarnish-retardant is good, but do not use ordinary felt, wool, or velvet because these materials contain sulfides, which attack metal.
Dishwasher-caused damage to porcelain and glass. The water in dishwashers gets very hot. Old ceramic items were not manufactured to withstand this treatment. Gilt or painted surfaces of items will wear off during cleaning. Other than household utilitarian pieces, glass should not be placed in a dishwasher because it may become chipped. Lead glass may develop a surface bloom (cloudy effect caused by chemical imbalance).
Photographs are not stored properly. Photographs should not be stored in “self-seal” albums. As the adhesive degrades, it will stain the photograph and the plastic sheet just intensifies the problem. Use archival quality albums or polypropylene for photo or print storage. Why not make color copies of your favorite photographs to display and store your originals where there are fewer problems with damage? (Just make sure you are not violating copyrights by making those copies.)
Too much window light. If you have many antiques and a new home with lots of windows and open spaces, consider getting UV filters for windows. Sunlight can be very damaging, so keep treasured items away from direct sunlight.
Textile neglect. The most fragile of items in the home, textiles, often receive the least care. Textiles that you want to save should be stored in the dark, either flat or rolled. Folding will cause creases in the textile that eventually crack. Textiles should be stored in acid-free tissue, never plastic. Textiles should be cleaned before they are stored.
Remember the old proverb: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Additional information can be found in these books: The Care and Handling of Art Objects: Practices in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Marjorie Shelley; Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators, by Konstanze Bachman; and Sotheby’s Caring for Antiques.
Deborah Abernethy, of Deborah Abernethy Appraisers and Consultants Inc., is based in Atlanta, Ga. She has served as a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the Emory University campus and completed the Art History 367/592 course- Conservation of Cultural Properties, at Emory University.