Caring for Antiques

Antiques require special attention when it comes to maintenance. Since antiques are more prone to harsh elements, you may need to use special cleaning tools in certain cases. Whether it’s a Ming vase or a copper candle holder, it’s important to handle them with care when cleaning or moving them.

For avid antique collectors, caring for a piece is just as important as finding and buying it. Whether you spent a small fortune on your collection or keep it as a family heirloom, you want to do everything possible to keep it in top shape. But that’s the irony of antique collecting: every object has a life span, and you can only do so much to keep it from succumbing to age. That’s why the older a piece is, the more valuable it is.

Proper care is your best bet in prolonging the life of your antiques. This requires more than the occasional dusting—you need to protect them from the elements that contribute to aging, such as heat, moisture and humidity. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not that simple either. Here are some tips on caring for and maintaining your antique collection.

Wash in warm water. Porcelain, glass, and pottery should be washed in warm water. Cold water can damage the color and texture and cause slight chipping. Use only mild detergent and clean with a soft-bristled brush. Never put them in the dishwasher—the high heat and strong chemicals can cause permanent damage to the material. Let them dry naturally; wiping with a cloth leaves gray marks on the glass which can be hard to remove.

Store them properly. Put anything breakable on a stable shelf away from the main flow of traffic. Hallways, living rooms, and the wall beside a doorway are common spots for breakage, so avoid them as much as possible. Use shelves only for wood, metal, and non-breakable items; glass and porcelain should be placed on lower surfaces such as tables and mantelpieces. If you can, place them in a room with carpeted floors to cushion falls. Try not to put too much on the shelf, because a slight nudge could send everything crashing down.

Freeze paper. Old books and magazines tend to be infested by mites and other small insects. Spraying them out will damage the book and won’t kill all the mites, so kill them off in the freezer instead. Just pop in an old book for a few hours and wipe it clean afterwards. The dead mites may still be there when it thaws, but at least they won’t do any more damage to your book.

Don’t polish metals. Not without a dealer’s go signal, that is. Metals, especially copper, are valued for their patina—the dark green finish that results from oxidation. Polishing may remove this finish and make the item less valuable. Before buying, ask your dealer about alternatives to polishing to preserve the item’s patina.

Be gentle with textiles. Antique textiles tend to be very delicate, and a seemingly moderate tug can cause considerable damage. Ideally they shouldn’t be washed at all, unless they’re stained or meant to be worn. If you do need to wash them, do it by hand—machine cycles can be rough on the threads. Use warm water and mild detergents, and soak stained spots to soften before rubbing them clean. Try different detergents on regular fabrics to make sure they’re colorfast and fade-resistant. Dry them under the sun, but don’t leave them out too long as the heat can damage the fabric. Rugs and carpets can be vacuumed, but use only the lowest settings and take care not to pull the threads.

Use lint-free wipes on wood. The fibers on a regular cloth may cling to wooden furniture and cause splinters. Lint-free cloth will pull the other way, attracting dust and other particles without affecting the wood in any way. Alternatively, you can use old smooth cotton shirts (as long as they don’t have zippers of buttons). Just make sure the fabric is soft and won’t leave any color on the furniture. After wiping, follow up with a fine feather duster to remove any remaining fibers.

Handle furniture carefully. When rearranging your room, don’t drag your furniture over the floor. This will damage both your floor and the base of the furniture, especially if it’s made of heavy wood like oak or pine. Instead, have someone help you lift it up and carry it to the designated spot. Set it down gently and try to get the exact spot right. It’s okay to push a little to get it in place, but only minimally, preferably an inch or less of adjustment. If you’re planning to do a lot of rearranging, pad the legs of your furniture with soft rubber for easier transport.