Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Should I Polish Up My Antique?

This is a question that is extremely pertinent to new collectors and dealers.  When we find a dusty old treasure, our first inclination is to polish it up.  Sometimes, this may be a fine thing to do, sometimes it ruins a perfectly good antique.  Here's a helpful list of what should be polished by an amateur and what should not.  Remember, use a good quality polish and a soft cloth.  Never use power tools (dremel) etc.. on old antiques.

Furniture:  No.  If it's a good quality piece of furniture, having the original finish can be as valuable as the piece itself.  Do not refinish good antique wood furniture.  If you've got an old 1970's bookcase and you want to faux paint it, fine.  If you have a colonial era chair, do not polish it up.

Silverware: Yes.  Silverware is meant to be shiny, and should be kept that way.  Gently removing the tarnish from silverware should not impact its value.

Don't do this!
Civil War Relics: No.  Absolutely never polish up your old civil war buttons, bullets, rosettes etc..  You will destroy the value of these types of relics if they are polished up.  Collectors want to see the age of these kinds of items.  Included here is an over-polished 1800's rosette from Sgt. Rikers Civil War Trading Post.

Conserved Oil Painting
Oil Paintings: Yes, but not by you.  Oil paintings sometimes require conservation.  Smoke, old varnish, dirt, and dust can greatly impact the beauty and value of a painting.  Fortunately, oil paintings are pretty hearty.  Professional conservators can remove these layers of time to renew the colors and content of an oil painting.  It can be remarkable to see the final product of a good conservation effort as in the painting on this early California Plein Air Landscape on the right.  They may also apply a thin layer of varnish.  Look around for a high end conservator with a lot of experience or get recommendations from a high end auction house.  If you are talking about an A list artist, you want to give the selection of your conservator extra consideration.

Water Colors: Yes, but not by you.  Paper conservators specialize in the restoration of water colors.  you should not even think about doing this yourself.  Additionally, remember to keep your valuable water colors out of direct sunlight. Water colors should be framed beneath acid free mattes to prevent discoloration of the paper.  Humidity should also be limited with all paper objects.

Coins: No.  Coins should not be polished.  The exception might be coins that have been removed from the ocean.  If you are diving wrecks, special consideration for these types of coins may be warranted.  However, many of these coins are left in clumps as well..Do your research if this applies.  In general, DO NOT POLISH COINS EVER.

Glass: Glass can be washed in warm soapy water and dried assuming it isn't painted glass.  Be very careful washing old silvered mirrors.  Water can leach beneath the silver and can permanently damage this old glass.

Rugs: Please never attempt to wash an antique rug yourself.  The dyes in antique rugs can bleed, making a wreck of a priceless antique.  Take it to a professional.

Oxidized Native American Bracelet

Sterling Silver Jewelry: It depends.  For most jewelry, this is ok.  However, more and more, collectors want to do this themselves or would prefer that the patina remain intact.  This is especially true with Native American silver.  My personal opinion is this.  Some Native American silver has elements that are purposefully oxidized to be black.  These areas should never be polished.  However, if it was the intent of the jeweler to let it shine, let it shine.  
A Nicely Polished Navajo Ring
I personally don't see the purpose of having dull jewelry.  This is one of those things that is trending toward not polishing among some collectors though.  In the case of the bracelet at left, I agree with the seller to leave the bracelet as found.  At right is an example of native jewelry I would polish. 

As a rule of thumb, if you think you may have something very old or valuable, consult a professional or expert.  It is not worth the risk.  Feel free to get in touch with specific questions about specific pieces.  Also, feel free to weigh in about other items that should definitely not be polished up.  I would love to publish your feedback.


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