Properly Storing Antiques and Collectibles

Keep Your Collections in Top Shape Storing Them Correctly

Christie's London employee, Sandra Nedvetskaia, cleans a two-handled Campana vase.
Christie's London employee, Sandra Nedvetskaia, cleans a two-handled Campana vase. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Collectors might not look at themselves as curators for the most part, but the task of conservation indeed falls on their shoulders. Although most people don't have the time and resources to learn how to care for their treasures in the same fashion as a museum would, there are some basic care considerations to keep in mind for all collections. These rules apply to objects are made from wood, paper, metal, glass or ceramic materials to avoid ruining them.

Avoid Light

Light can harm most any collectible, especially organic materials like most types of wood, paper, and textiles. In addition to fading colors in art prints and fabrics alike, harsh light can dry out many materials and can speed up chemical reactions that occur naturally over time.

All collections should be displayed away from direct sunlight. Even things that seem indestructible, like plastics, can melt when stored near a sunny window. Lights in display cabinets should be used sparingly as well. Turning display lights on when the air feels a bit damp can help alleviate humidity, however.

In general, light levels should be fairly low for most collectibles so displaying them in a hallway or specific room with adequate window coverings can help. For those serious about protecting collections, light meters can be purchased at photo supply shops so you can test exactly how much potentially harmful light may be filtering into your home.

Control Humidity

When it comes to humidity, a good balance remains important for most antiques and collectibles. When there's not enough humidity, items like paintings, wood, and paper can shrink, crack and become very brittle. When humidity reaches excessive levels, rust can develop on metal items, mold can grow on a variety of objects, and insects are encouraged to breed.

All situations to be avoided.

If you're not sure about the humidity levels in your storage areas, whether around your home or off premises, you can also test this with a hygrometer available at most hardware stores. Humidity should be at about 50 percent whenever possible.

Control Temperatures

Another consideration is temperature. Avoid the extreme temperature fluctuations that come with storing collectibles in attics or garages, especially where organic materials like wood, paper, and cloth made of natural fibers are involved. The ideal temperature for preservation hovers around 64 degrees. That's a little cold for most people, but keeping your home and storage areas as cool as you can afford while remaining comfortable is always suggested.

If you have one room in your home that tends to be a little cooler than the rest of the house year round, that's going to be your best spot for displaying and storing collections. Again, hallways and dimly lit rooms seem to provide a little more coolness so consider those areas for especially fragile items like ephemera and textiles.

Change Climates Gradually

If you decide to change the way you are storing items, moving from hot to cold and vice versa, do so gradually.

Most antiques can be shocked when exposed to temperature extremes too quickly. For example, when exposed to extreme temperature changes the tiny cracks in the glaze of ceramics, called crazing, can appear more rapidly than they would have naturally.

Glass items can crack as well when exposed to extreme temperature changes, along with glass components used in a number of different types of collectibles.

See page two for information on properly cleaning your antiques and collectibles.

The more fragile items are handled, the more likely they are to be broken. For this reason, they should be cleaned only as often as necessary.

When you can't avoid cleaning, and sometimes you just can't when pieces have experienced years of neglect or improper storage, be as gentle as possible and use the proper tools. To assemble a basic collectibles cleaning kit, consider rounding up the following items:

  • Soft bristled brushes
  • A can of moisture-free compressed air
  • Cotton swabs
  • Distilled water
  • Isopropyl alcohol

Brushes can often be found when you're out foraging for garage sale finds. Artist's brushes, shaving brushes, and soft paintbrushes are all great for dusting away loose particles. Just be sure to clean them thoroughly before using them for this purpose.

Canned air can be purchased at office supply stores and works well for cleaning items too delicate to brush. Just be sure to hold the can far enough away not to blast the piece in question, since the air is under pressure and can be rather forceful at close range.

When an item needs to be wet cleaned, if dry cleaning methods haven't quite done the trick, using distilled water allows you to avoid the chemicals and minerals often found in tap water that can stain some materials. Isopropyl alcohol often comes in handy for cleaning many ceramics and porcelain pieces with a glazed finish as well.

Be careful though! Alcohol can take the finish off of wood and remove painting on glass. Also be careful when using detergents, since anything with bleach can be damaging to fragile items such as faux pearls adorning vintage clothing.

Know When Not to Clean

If you're good to your antiques and they'll be good to you, and that sometimes means not cleaning them.

Most pieces won't be harmed by brushing or gently blowing away excess dust and dirt. What you don't want to do is to remove what collectors and dealers refer to as patina.

Some antiques like fine furniture and items made of metal, take a Tiffany lamp base as an example, actually retain more value when those layers of age that might appear to be dirt are left in place. When in doubt, so some research on the item you're contemplating cleaning before you get started.

Avoid Excessive Handling

Another way to keep most any item in top shape is by avoiding excessive handling. The oily residue on skin can remain on items causing deterioration. That's why you often see museum curators wearing white cotton gloves when handling precious commodities.

While it might be overkill to wear gloves while handling all your collections, it's not a bad idea to have a pair on hand for extremely fragile items. Family heirlooms, for instance, and other valuable items you want to preserve as long as possible, fall into this category.

See page one for information on properly storing your antiques and collectibles.