Caring for collectibles


April 12, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Getting started on spring cleaning? Are you dusting your paintings and frames with a cloth, feather duster, brush, or a hand-held vacuum cleaner? Do you use cleaning solutions or aerosols on or near your antiques?

Take a break from the chores to read the newly published "Caring for Your Collections: Preserving and Protecting Your Art and Other Collectibles" (Abrams, $37.50). The book may change forever your methods of housekeeping.

"If dust becomes a problem, a light dusting may be carried out with a soft badger or sable brush," suggests William R. Leisher, director of conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago. It's amazing how these soft brushes, properly used, can get dust out of crevices without harming your favorite things.

Just as some people restrict their diets in hopes of staying fit and slowing the aging process, a collector should provide a healthy regimen of low light, controlled heat and humidity, and sensible maintenance to extend the life of art and antiques.

That's the message from the National Committee to Save America's Cultural Collections, a collaborative project of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (the arts counterparts of the National Institutes of Health). They joined forces in an educational campaign to build an awareness of the need for protecting and preserving art and antiques, and produced the new book. The project was spearheaded by the national committee's chairman, Arthur W. Schultz, president of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and formerly chairman of the board of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Caring for Your Collections" is a compendium of essays by conservation specialists, brought together in coffee-table book format complete with eye-catching color illustrations. While the book is geared to wealthy collectors with valuable and rare objects, what makes "Caring for Your Collections" so helpful to a broad audience is its abundance of simple, practical pointers on everyday issues which won't cost a dime.

There's advice for folks who want to keep needlework from fading, family photographs from deteriorating, paintings from flaking, bronzes from corroding, furniture from splitting, silver from tarnishing and books from becoming moldy, not to mention suggestions about keeping musical instruments playable, ceramics and glass dusted and repaired, and how to move, store, authenticate, appraise and insure collections.

The book's common sense advice includes dos and don'ts easy to overlook. Some examples:

* Do not lift a heavy frame from the wall if you haven't chosen a place to put it without damaging its corner scrollwork.

* Do not start to move something with one person when three will be needed midstream.

* Do not first take out the lower drawers from a heavy high chest, lest it fall on you.

* Do not hurry; if the phone rings, let it ring.

Other useful advice includes rotating paintings and prints so they're not always in sunlight or lamplight; store them part of the year in a dark well-ventilated space, never in a hot attic or damp basement. If you want to display a precious old family photo, make a copy for framing and carefully store the original in special archival quality plastic sleeves inside acid-free boxes.

Household air pollution is a big problem, the experts note: Smoke-filled rooms can damage artworks, leaving a thick film of nicotine on their surface, and cooking greases can speed decay.

The book is particularly helpful in explaining the composition of household objects, facilitating their proper care. Many are made of "highly incompatible materials that react differently to moisture, temperature change and strong light."

While there are many easy precautions collectors can take, neither book advocates a do-it-yourself approach to conservation; the artistic and economic value of a piece can be destroyed all too easily.

Often there's no single right answer. "There are varying philosophies of treatment and changing techniques (as there are in medicine) so do not hesitate to get several opinions about the treatment proposed. Conservation is a fast advancing field," said Joyce Hill Stoner, director of the conservation program at Delaware's Winterthur Museum, who wrote a poignant essay titled "The Mortality of Things" for "Caring for Your Collections."

Like doctors, conservators should keep photographic and written documentation of their work, sometimes including X-rays. However, unlike physicians, conservators should ensure that whatever they do or prescribe is reversible or removable without harming an object's original materials.

Several universities offer advanced degree programs in conservation. Many schools have continuing education workshops for novices. But no state licenses or certifies conservators, so collectors can fall prey to the untrained or unethical. Museum curators sometimes are willing to refer collectors to the conservators they use.

Hiring a conservator who belongs to a well-regarded professional association is advisable. The American Institute for Conservation Historic and Artistic Works, whose members largely are individual conservators, operates a referral service. Write to the AIC, 1400 16th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

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