Note: The information below is geared for the private owner.
When in doubt, please, contact a conservator to ask questions; we are happy to
answer questions when possible. Also, at the bottom of the page are links for further information. We are happy to work with institutions regarding collection care.
MPF Conservation discusses Collection Care: environment, light, cleaning, waxing, polishing, moving, and disasters.
Objects generally like the same environment that you like, so think of them as you would your grandparents. Keep them in a modestly warm and dry environment, out of direct sun, handle gently and don’t drag them around the room by the head or arm!
The greatest damage done to antiques that is not accidental (puppy chews, tipping in chairs, cat scratches, children and adult abuse) comes from placing them in environments that are uncomfortable to living things. Placing them in attics, garages, basements, or storage units with no climate control, where extreme temperature and relative humidity shifts cause problematic conditions in veneers, joints and finishes. Best to store them in your home.
While certain ranges in humidity are acceptable, what is critical for the private collector who does not have climate controlled environments is consistency in humidity. This is another reason to store your items within your home, where they are less likely to be subject to radical shifts in humidity.
Moving from one climate to another (e.g., from the desert to the beach) may cause joints to swell or shrink; these shifts may cause historic glues to crystallize and powder, or cause a break if untreated. Contact a conservator if you have moved with antiques and have a check-up (assessment) done regarding loose joints before they cause problems. One way to mitigate the issue is to bring the pieces into your home immediately when you arrive, and not leave them in the garage while you unpack. The sudden shift to dry heat or sudden shift to damp rainy weather can cause problems quickly.
Light can be problematic; direct light is the worst. Ambient light or reflective light can also fade traditional stains and dyes beneath surface varnish. While window treatments may mitigate light damage, the best way is to keep fragile antiques away from direct light at all costs, and place your oldest antiques in rooms which are darker or close the drapes/blinds when you are not in the room.
Cleaning, Waxing and Polishing
A caution before proceeding: Ingredients in commercial products change without notice. Always read the labels for possible changes in formulas.
How to dust and polish depends upon your piece. Look carefully at the entire object’s surface before dusting. Swiffer or feather dusters can catch in small breaks or cracks in your finish and and lift them or pop them off altogether, causing losses; be sure that your finish is unified before using. A slightly damp diaper cloth or old cotton t-shirt is the best duster. The dampness should not leave any sort of trail, but be just damp enough to allow the dust to stay on the rag. Follow immediately with a dry cloth.
Waxing and polishing should be done only when necessary, or once a year on surfaces which get a high degree of traffic, such as table tops, and less often on chair legs and table legs.. We recommend Staples, Mylands, or Tree wax. Stay away from products that contain silicone or high concentrations of alcohol, xylene, and toluene, as they can damage many surfaces. Also avoid citrus oils and linseed oils, as they are only good for certain finishes and will cause chemical reactions, including extreme degradation of many varnishes. Also, certified organic products can still contain elements which are not good for your particular piece. Leave all other waxes and cleaners to the professionals.
Cleaning is problematic. We do not advise buying a conservation grade cleanser as they can cause problems for certain finishes. Best to keep your pieces clean by regular maintenance. Dry cotton swabs work nicely to clean details once every six months. If invasive cleaning is necessary consult a conservator and ask for product or procedural advice.
Handling and Moving Objects
Handling Furniture (and other objects) carefully means lifting them by their strongest point structurally. Chairs should be lifted with fingers beneath the seat, tables by their apron, or if there is no apron, by the top of their legs instead of with fingers underneath the table top, which can pull the top from the legs. Never slide furniture across floors, as the vibration is not good for the furniture, and the legs may be compromised by dragging them.
Moving into a new home is an ordeal, but it is best not to trust valuables to the movers to wrap. New materials are always being created, and while we appreciate the business, many ruin finishes and are not good for the life of the furniture.
Take good photos of all valuable items before wrapping or boxing them. Make sure that joints and joins are photographed.
In general, large items should be blanket wrapped. Dust items thoroughly before placing the wrap in them as the dust will scratch the surface finish. Wrap the item first in a smooth sheet, if possible, and then in a moving blanket. At that point you can feel comfortable using the popular plastic wrap to secure the blanket to the item. NEVER USE PLASTIC WRAP AGAINST AN OBJECT’S SURFACE. Most plastics will ruin your object.
Once they have arrived, carefully unwrap and then immediately inspect. Pull gently on legs and arms to see if they have become loose, and generally look carefully under bright lights to check for cracks and checks caused by the move. Take pictures of any damage immediately.
Moving companies have claims adjusters, and they will generally downplay the value of and damage to objects. Get a second opinion from someone who is an expert, such as a conservator. This will cost you, but often conservators such as ourselves will allow some of the payment for an insurance assessment to be placed toward having the piece repaired.
Accidents, Disasters and Cautions
Accidents and disasters such as floods and fires require the assistance of a professional conservator. Best to contact them before trying to move or handle the object, because they may have ways of caring for the object until you can afford to have it treated.
Below, a list of common cautions:
- Do not wrap items in plastic bubble wrap or binding wraps commonly suggested by movers; read our section on moving and handling above.
- Do not store in storage units, barns, garages, attics, or basements.
- Keep small children, puppies and kittens away from antiques until they are taught how to behave around them; similarly, move valuable antiques during parties where activities may cause damage.
- Do not use any wax, polisher, oil or emollient without checking with a qualified conservator.
- True oriental lacquers can be problematic to clean and repair. Contact a conservator with a background in oriental lacquer to obtain advice.
Note: All images in black and white are from the Campbell House collection,
a lovely house museum in Spokane, Washington.