Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Should I Polish Up My Antique Furniture, Silver, Oil Painting, War Relic?

This is a question that is extremely pertinent to new collectors and dealers alike.  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.

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 never 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.  

Oxidized Taxco Cufflinks
Certain pieces of Taxco jewelry also commonly utilize this intentionally oxidized effect and the same rule applies as with Navajo jewelry. In the case of these pieces, the jeweler intended for some parts to never be polished. Removing the black on a piece like this or weakening the contrast decreases the value. Makers like Spratling, Pineda and others utilized this effect.

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.

Sterling Silver: Although this is frequently misunderstood, the simple answer is that (usually) tarnish can be removed and patina should stay. But what does that mean? Basically, over time when silver is exposed to hydrogen and oxygen in the air, it reacts and a thin film (hydrogen sulfide) forms on the surface of the metal. This film should be removed in most cases. Patina as a term is sort of misused as used to describe silver, but what silver people generally mean by it is nicely described by EBay user mr.salas in his article that states, 

"Patina is a rich, warm color which forms over time as a result of use and handling. Flatware straight from the factory has a "factory shine" whether it's sterling silver, silverplate or stainless steel. After only minimal use, you will begin to notice fine surface scratches. It is impossible to avoid but this is nothing to worry about; it's part of the patination process. Over time, these fine scratches will blend together to form a soft finish." 

A hand polishing with a polish such as Haggerty's Silversmith Wash and a soft cotton cloth (for example, t-shirt fabric like a jersey cotton) is widely viewed by experts as an acceptable way to remove tarnish, but leave patina.

Gilded Items. If silver is gilded, you must use great care in polishing it. Pieces like this (if you aren't displaying them) should be kept in a low oxygen to limit exposure to air if possible. Each time you polish a gilded item, you will remove a little more of the layer of gold and eventually it can be destroyed. You can pay to have an item regilded, but it is quite expensive and the techniques have changed, and so a historically accurate regilding can be nearly impossible. Consult an expert if this is your problem.
Kutch Repousse Cup
Repousse. With really intricate repousse, you may wish to "polish the high spots". The tarnish can actually really improve the appearance and creates an incredible contrast. Don't use a toothbrush to get in all the nooks and crannies. This is unwanted and unnecessary. So, polish the high spots, and leave the low spots black and unpolished. You should use a small amount of polish to accomplish this and polish it slowly and gently. Sometimes a cotton swab can help you to polish very precisely if this is desired.

Overall, silver should be polished, but if you have questions, consult an expert. The average person should not be polishing a Paul Revere teapot. The average person should definitely feel free to hand polish most pieces with care and respect.

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. Care should be taken if silverware is gilded. Gilding is a thin layer of gold plating that can be easily damaged by polishing.

For a great selection of all sorts of antiques, see nateivey.com! And feel free to ask questions. I'm here to help.


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