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Handling Your Antiques

Most historic items should always be handled with cotton gloves. This is because salt and oil from bare skin can cause damage and corrosion on items. The major exception to this rule is ceramics and glass.

Paintings: Handling is one of the biggest dangers to artwork. Sensitive to temperature changes, moving pieces between areas of different temperatures can damage them. The best time to transport artwork in our northern climate is in spring or fall; if transport is needed in winter, never transport art in a cold vehicle. When moving paintings, avoid touching the painted surface and the back of the canvas. Place a hard, flat material on the front and back of the painting (thin wood or a large piece of cardboard), and wrap the piece to insulate it against humidity and temperature changes, such as blankets. Wrap with plastic if needed to protect against moisture and water.

Paper Documents and Newspaper: Frequent or careless handling of paper can lead to damage, including tears, creases, folds, and abrasions. For documents that are handled often, consider making a copy. For originals, cotton gloves are recommended, but be sure to be extra careful because they will reduce your dexterity. If you do not want to wear gloves, be sure to wash and dry your hands thoroughly. For very fragile pieces, use a larger, heavier piece of paper to support them. Avoid activities around paper documents that could dirty or damage them, including eating, drinking, and smoking, and be aware of your surroundings – remove pens from the area and use pencils, and be careful of damaging documents with your body and clothing, such as loose jewelry, buttons, and sneezes. Do not use tape, glue, paper clips, or staples, as these items can cause damage that is irreversible.

Photographs: Handling printed photographs follow the general directions for paper documents. When handling negatives, which are easily damaged, be sure to wear cotton gloves. Handle them only by the edges.

Wooden Furniture: When moving wooden furniture, check for damage or loose joints so you can be extra careful of those areas. When transporting furniture, remove drawers, shelves, and doors, securing parts that can’t be removed with soft straps. Always pick up and handle furniture by the strongest point, for example, the seat of a chair and the legs of a table, as opposed to the chair’s back or arms, or the table’s top. Lift the furniture rather than drag it. When transporting furniture, cushion it with blankets, tied on with soft cords. Most furniture should be transported in its usual position when possible, though tables are best transported top down.

Glass and Ceramics: Be very careful when handling glass and ceramics, as they are very susceptible to breakage. Wash and dry your hands, but do not wear cotton gloves. Use both hands to lift and carry them, and never pick them up by handles or spouts, which can break off easily. Layer soft material between pieces when stacking and packing. While glass and ceramics can withstand a variety of temperatures, rapid temperature changes can be devastating. For example, do not leave glass and ceramics in a vehicle overnight in winter, and then bring them into a warm building. In this case, the items should be gradually brought to temperature.

Silver: When handling silver, wear cotton gloves so the salt and oils on your hands do not mark the surface.


Coins and Medals: When handling coins or family medals, be sure to wear cotton gloves and handle them by the edges, since the oils and salts on your skin can cause deterioration. Damage to metals, including coins, medals, and even silver and copper can often begin at and spread from a fingerprint.

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