Restoring and preserving your collection

If you’ve invested time and money building a great collection, you’ll want to protect its future value by avoiding damage and deterioration. But you probably also want to display and enjoy it, rather than locking it up in museum-quality storage. Preservation depends on the specifics of your items, but here are some basic tips:

  • Understand the vulnerabilities of different types of materials. Organic materials like wood, paper, leather, and early plastics are highly sensitive to environmental factors like light, temperature, and humidity. Inorganics (metals, stone, ceramics, glass) can be prone to corrosion or breakage. Construction methods also make a big difference (e.g., whether the object was made to withstand seasonal temperature variations).
  • Guard against temperature and humidity extremes, and moisture. Organic materials can harden, become brittle, and crack if too dry. Metals can corrode and organics can rot or attract mold or fungus in too-humid or too-damp conditions. Temperature changes can cause expansion and contraction, leading to cracking or warping. Try to store your collection in places with consistent humidity and temperatures (not too hot or cold). Note that attics are often hot and basements often have high humidity. Avoid storing items in sealable plastic bags, which can trap moisture, resulting in water damage and mold.
  • Guard against light, especially sunlight. Light is one of your biggest enemies in the fight to preserve anything organic. Wood, paper, photos, and early thermoplastics such as Bakelite can become discolored, faded, or bleached from direct exposure to light. The heat and UV rays from light can also be destructive. Keep your collection out of direct sunlight at all times. Close your blinds, use UV protective glass, and put valuable paper items in archival boxes.
  • Guard against mold and pest damage. Keep your collection free of dust and dirt, and out of damp, unventilated environments which can attract mold and pests. Don’t enclose paper or other organic items in a 100 percent sealed container, which can lead to condensation problems and mold (you must have at least a pinhole for air exchange). Isolate any objects which may have attracted bugs to be sure the rest of your collection isn’t affected.
  • Avoid damage from people and pets. Ceramics or glass are especially fragile, but almost anything can be damaged by improper handling or display. Be careful when handling or transporting items, or letting others do so. Display items out of reach of kids and pets, but also make sure they can’t accidentally fall and break. Don’t cram items too close together, and put padding between items or on furniture to avoid contact damage. Don’t stack heavy items on top of one another. Don’t let people smoke near your collection. Organize your collection so you’re not constantly rifling through or disturbing it to find items. Use gloves to handle anything that could be damaged by oils from your fingers. Don’t store items in bubble wrap, which can leave residue. And if you use sealed cabinets for storage, pay attention to what they’re made of (some wood can emit destructive gases).
  • Take extra precautions with paper items. Consider a fireproof safe for storage of valuable paper and photos, and use archival-quality acid-free envelopes to hold individual items.
  • Know the risks if you’re going to use an item. Some items were meant to be used, and there’s much joy in using an antique for its original purpose. You may decide to use your vintage musical instrument, telephone, railroad signal, kitchenware, or whatever—just be sure it’s resilient and replaceable enough that you won’t be devastated if it suffers damage or deterioration.
  • Don’t overclean. Cleaning, like restoration, can often decrease an item’s value if done improperly.

Restoration and Repair

Restoration and repair are controversial subjects in the world of antiques and collectibles, with lots of different and strongly held views. Some collectors believe in restoring an item to its original condition or appearance, while others view any repair or restoration as sacrilegious. Others take a middle view, advocating conservation and addition of reproduction elements to complete an original. Usually, though, it depends on the item. For example, it is acceptable to stabilize a vintage travel or advertising poster by backing it with linen, but doing the same to a rock poster from the 1960s is considered sacrilege, and will kill its value. So while there is no single, correct answer for every situation, we can offer the following advice:

  • When in doubt, do nothing. This is the antiques and collectibles equivalent of the physician’s oath, “do no harm.” Amateur restoration, or even over-aggressive cleaning of a valuable piece, will almost certainly decrease its value, potentially quite significantly and irreversibly. So before you cut, sand, dye, sew, polish, glue, paint, varnish, oil, hammer, drill, flatten, scrape, buff, or use any kind of abrasives or chemicals on a piece, resist the temptation for a couple of days until you can do some research.
  • If you think you might ever sell a piece, understand the financial impact before restoring it. Depending on the collectible category, restoration, even by a professional, can turn off many buyers, potentially resulting in a lower market value.
  • Understand how other collectors view condition. What you see as dirt, another collector may see as patina which lends character, authenticity, and value to an item. Don’t make any assumptions about grime, blemishes, cracks, corrosion, worn out or non-functioning parts, or any other perceived shortcomings before doing your homework and consulting collectors who specialize in the specific category in question.
  • If you do decide to restore a valuable item, get it done professionally and conservatively. Find someone with lots of experience who knows how to restore or repair without impacting the item’s authenticity and market value. Ideally the work would be done without damage to the original piece and in such a way that it could be undone later if so desired, although paper restoration is generally irreversible. Thoroughly document the restoration (take before and after photos, etc.) and keep all original parts and components.
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