Handling Antique and Collectible Porcelain with Care

Avoid Damaging Your Ceramic Treasures with These Tips

Sitzendorf Porcelain Figurine
Sitzendorf Porcelain Figurine. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

One of the best ways to avoid damaging porcelain is to avoid handling it. After all, many porcelain pieces were made for purely decorative purposes and they should be put on a shelf and admired for their beauty. But realistically, when you live among your collected treasures, you’ll inevitably have to move them around or clean them from time to time.

When handling and moving your porcelain pieces, always keep the following tips for preservation in mind:

Monitor the Temperature 

One thing that can harm other types of collectibles that won’t have an impact on porcelain is sunlight. Since the colors are fired during manufacture, they won’t fade with exposure and sunlight certainly won’t melt porcelain. However, keep in mind that heat from light sources, whether a sunny window or lightbulb, may cause crazing to accelerate, according to Ken Arnold in Caring for Your Collectibles (Krause Publications). Crazing, or fine cracks in the glaze, are caused by extreme temperature changes so keep this in mind when assessing the potential impact light sources may have on porcelain.

And while porcelain is sturdy when it comes to temperature changes of moderate levels, extremes are a problem. As mentioned above, crazing can be an issue accelerated by heat, but porcelain can actually crack if going from cold to hot or hot to cold too quickly. Never place a piece of cold porcelain in a heated oven, for instance.

Receiving packages containing porcelain in the wintertime can also be problematic if the parcel ends up sitting in the cold for a length of time. Try to let it warm up gradually to avoid damaging the contents, say in a garage or enclosed patio, rather than bringing it into a heavily heated area right away.


Handle Porcelain with Bare Hands to Avoid Dropping the Piece

Gloves are advantageous with some collectibles that may be harmed by skin oils, such as ephemera or old photographs. That preventative measure isn’t necessary with porcelain and can actually work against you. The clumsy nature of gloves, not to mention their tendency to be slippery, doesn’t generally mix well with porcelain handling. It's far better to handle ceramics with your bare hands. 

Hold an Item by the Base or Main Part of the Body 

Even though a handle seems like it may be perfect for picking up a decorative coffee pot or pitcher, they can actually be fragile on antique porcelain pieces. So can heads and other extremities on porcelain figurines. Use both your hands, if possible, with one hand on the base or bottom, and the other supporting the back when picking up and holding a piece of antique porcelain.

Separate Plates When Storing Them 

Use towels, felt, or cotton flannel (even that from old shirts with buttons removed, if you’re into reusing and recycling) to separate porcelain plates for storage. Cushioning plates helps to keep them from getting chipped and scratched. Years of porcelain on porcelain shelf wear can also cause decorative gilding and gold trim to rub off.

Bubble wrap works, too, but sometimes plastics can cause glazes to discolor so sticking with soft cloth is generally better.

Line the Sink When Cleaning Dinnerware 

Place a towel or rubber drawer liner in the sink prior to cleaning delicate porcelain dishes. Doing so will help to avoid accidental damage. Also remember to use tepid water when cleaning your old dinnerware, since extreme hot or cold can cause porcelain damage.

Clean Decorative Objects Carefully 

Unless the porcelain you're dealing with is dinnerware designed to be immersed in water, it’s best to avoid that type of cleaning. Especially with soft-paste pieces, as they can be damaged by exposure to liquid if the glaze is compromised in any way.

A better way to clean is dusting with canned air available at office supply stores or using very soft bristled brushes of any type as long as they are clean.

If you need to use liquid to clean stubborn dirt, lay the piece on a towel and use dampened brushes or cotton swabs to very gently clean away grime.