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Preventive Maintenance—Part I

by Harry Rinker (02/14/09).

I recently returned from an extended weekend appearance, my sixth in as many years, in Lincoln City, Ore. I spent four days lecturing, signing books, conducting verbal appraisal clinics and doing in-home walk-through appraisals. I renewed acquaintances, including Charlie and Marilyn Short, two former Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles students now retired and living in Lincoln City. I returned poorer and richer—poorer because of the money no longer in my checkbook and richer because of the items I purchased at the Little Antique Mall.

As I walked through homes and watched people unpack the items they brought to the appraisal clinics, I repeatedly found myself offering “how to take better care” tips, many several times. We are the custodians of our antiques and collectibles, caretakers until it is time to hand them over to the next owner. We also have the responsibility to pass them on in as good or better condition than when we acquired them.

When I returned from Lincoln City, I made a list of the care tips about which I talked. I want to share that list along with my suggestions on how to resolve the problems. Since the list is a long one, two “Rinker on Collectibles” columns are necessary. This is the first.

Heat is an enemy. While it keeps us warm, it can cause serious damage to objects, especially those made of wood, by drying them out. Never place a piece of furniture over an air conditioning/heating vent or return. I did not see one piece of furniture located over air-conditioning/heating vents or returns, I saw dozens. When turning the furniture over, the bottom boards were becoming dried out and brittle. Furniture upholstery also can deteriorate. In one instance, it was discolored and beginning to separate.

Blocking the proper flow of cool or heated air forces the distribution system to work harder to maintain room temperature. We live in an age when the conservation of electricity, gas, and oil are a top priority. Moving furniture to allow proper air flow will reduce the energy bill, perhaps not significantly but to cite the old cliché “every little bit helps.” Keep air-conditioning and heat vents and returns open and free.

I frequently asked individuals to place their hands on the outside walls of their home to feel the temperature difference between the room air and the wall. Since it was winter, the outside walls were colder than the air in the room. The reverse is true in the summer. The wall temperature is much hotter than the room temperature thanks to air-conditioning. This temperature difference, which varies throughout the day, can have a damaging effect on artwork and other objects hanging on the wall. Most objects can survive in any temperature. They have difficulty surviving when they have to constantly adjust to temperature differences. The solution is to obtain blocks or tabs from an art supply house or frame shop and place them on the back bottom corners of framed material so it rests away from the wall. Place shelved objects so that they do not touch the back wall. Doing this maintains a constant temperature around the object.

Attics, garages, and sheds are other areas where the temperature can shift, sometimes twenty degrees or more during the day. This is why composition dolls, celluloid toys, ceramics, glass, etc., are often found cracked or deteriorating when rediscovered after years of storage. Antiques and collectibles need to be stored in constant temperature.

During a winter visit to Stoudt’s Antique Mall in Adamstown, Pa., I watched a woman purchase a pattern glass goblet with a delicate stem. The dealer carefully wrapped it and gave it to the buyer. As the buyer opened the door to the outside, a loud crack echoed through the building. The buyer returned to the dealer and unpacked the goblet. The stem was shattered in two places. The glass cracked because it could not adjust to the rapid change between the warm mall temperature and chilling cold of the outside.

When transporting ceramics and glass between temperature extremes, it is important to allow the object to adjust. Find a place where the temperature change is gradual and pause for a minute or two. When transporting in a car or van, adjust the temperature in the car or van to match the temperature in the house or place to which the object is being transported. Drop off or pick up the object near an entrance door. Likewise, keep antiques and collectibles away from exterior doors that when opened might create a sudden temperature shift. While most homes today no longer have foyers, kids still have the bad habit of leaving the door open or not shutting it properly.

Sunlight bleaches objects. I have written about this previously but it bears repeating. Large windows remain a popular feature in many homes. Few are properly curtained or filtered to prevent direct sunlight from entering the room. When taping “Collector Inspector” for HGTV, I saw a sun faded quilt where you could trace the rise and fall of the sun through the bedroom window by the amount of fading exhibited by the fabric. The quilt was ruined. The homeowner did not recognize what was happening until I pointed it out to her.

I lost track of how many times I picked up a lamp, vase, etc., on a table located by a window and saw the outline of the base of the object in the finish on the table. During my Lincoln City visit, I saw a dining room table where the surface color of the leaves was several times darker than the two end sections. When not in use with its leaves, the table was pushed together and placed in front of large picture window. The top had faded to the point where the surface varnish had disappeared and the finish had lightened. There was no way to renew the top without a total refinish.

Fabric also fades. Pick up the pillow from any couch or chair that has had a prolonged exposure to light, even artificial light. Note the color difference between the exposed and unexposed surfaces. When considering fabric, think carpet, drapery, and textile wall hangings as well as upholstered furniture.

Artwork and prints also suffer when exhibited on a wall struck by direct sunlight. Once again, even indirect light can cause fading. The fading happens gradually, often unnoticed, as with fabric. Sunlight can cause discoloration in glass. Modern clear glass often develops a purple hue from continued exposure to sun and heat. I saw several instances of this during my home visits in Lincoln City.

Study how light comes into your home. Avoid placing furniture and other objects in direct sunlight. If you must, rotate them in and out of the area on a regular basis. In some cases, such as drapery, fading and replacement is expected. Antiques and collectibles are exceptions. Sunlight damage often is irreversible.

Having discussed temperature and sunlight, it makes sense to end this column with a plea to avoid storing antiques and collectibles in a damp environment. Basements, garages, and storage sheds are not good storage areas, even if they are temperature controlled. Unfortunately, temperature does not control humidity. Antiques and collectibles survive best in a humidity of around 55%. Too dry is as dangerous as too moist.

The problem is mildew. Once it affixes itself to an object, it is very difficult to remove. Wiping off mildew does not solve the problem. Mildew has to be killed. While there are chemical solutions, exposure to bright sunlight in moderate doses often works best.

In an upcoming column, I will continue this preventive maintenance theme discussing issues of how to pack antiques and collectibles for transport, store objects, preserve framed items, and more.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT?” streams live and is archived on the Internet.

“SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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