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Cleaning Your Antiques

Cleaning historic items can be simple and safe, as long as certain precautions are taken. For deeply soiled items, a professional conservator is generally the best person to undertake cleaning.

Paintings: Cleaning and repair of paintings is best left to a professional. In cases of paintings that are quite valuable, cleaning may sometimes be a hindrance to the selling price; many collectors will pay more to purchase an uncleaned painting because they want to have the painting cleaned themselves. If you are planning to keep the painting, be sure to have a conservator perform the work.

Paper Documents and Newspaper: Cleaning and repair of paper documents and books is best left to a professional. If the document is in good condition, the surface can be lightly dusted with a soft brush, but be careful not to overclean. Mould and insects are common hazards to paper; books or papers with mould on them should be wrapped in plastic and taken to a conservator. If a collection smells musty but there is no visible mould, dry out the documents and storage area with fans, space heaters, or open windows until the smell is gone. Do not use tape, glue, paper clips, or staples to repair tears or other damage.

Photographs: Negatives may be cleaned by dusting surface dirt and dust with a soft brush. It is best to leave the cleaning and repair of stains on negatives to a professional. Prints can also be dusted with a soft brush. If a print is stained, the most cost efficient way to improve it is to copy the photo and enhance it digitally, removing stains and fixing fading. Print on photo paper.

Wooden Furniture: Wooden furniture does not need to be oiled. Avoid using polishes or lemon oils, which can leave the surface sticky and attract insects. Commercially available products can sometimes do more harm than good by reacting with the finish over time. Instead, dust regularly with a slightly damp cloth, and buff dry with a soft cloth. In the case of furniture made before 1914, dust only with a dry cloth. Once a year, a good quality paste wax can be sparingly applied with a soft cloth. This is the best way to care for wooden furniture in a dry climate like Prince George. Stripping wooden furniture is not generally recommended, as original finishes are part of the historic value of a piece. Unless the finish is in very poor condition, it is best to maintain the original finish. Polishing metal hardware is not generally needed, just buff with a soft dry cotton cloth. If you do polish metal hardware, remove it from the furniture if possible, so as not to damage the surrounding wood or finish.

Glass and Ceramics: Items in good condition can be dusted with a soft brush or cloth, being careful of any peeling decoration or rough surfaces. Items can be washed in lukewarm water with a little dish soap, but be sure to line the bottom of the sink with a towel. When finished, remove excess water with a soft cloth and let air dry.

Silver: Before cleaning silver, it is important to know whether your item is sterling silver or silver plated. Check carefully for any identifying marks to find out which it is. Never use general, all purpose metal polishes on silver; use a product that is specifically for silver. Be aware that all of the commercial products contain abrasives, which will remove some silver along with the tarnish, and can leave fine scratches on the surface.


Coins and Medals: Generally, it is advisable to not clean coins. The surface of a coin can develop tones, patinas, and tarnish over time, which are sometimes considered part of a coin’s value. The only cleaning that should be done to a coin is removing surface dirt. Wear cotton gloves (never latex!), and wash the coin in lukewarm distilled water with a mild liquid soap, but do not scrub the surface. Rinse with a cotton swab dipped in distilled water. Use another cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove any grease that may remain on the coin. Do not use coin dips or metal cleaers, which can corrode the surface if traces of the product remain, and scratch the coin. Medals can also be cleaned, though with care for the ribbons that are often attached to them. Wear cotton gloves and use a cotton swab to apply a mild liquid soap to the surface of the medal. Gently rub the surface to remove dirt, rinse well in distilled water, and let air dry on a paper towel. A silver or copper medal can be cleaned by rubbing a soft piece of cloth gently and evenly over the surface. Degrease the medal with rubbing alcohol after cleaning.

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