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Simple Tips Can Help You Salvage Keepsakes After a Fire

by priceminer (09/02/09).

firefightersA fire can have devastating effects for anyone. Now, imagine your collection of art, antiques or collectibles suffering through a fire. A horrible thought.

While insurance may help to soothe the loss, there may be items which carry huge sentimental (not to mention monetary) value. Salvaging the items becomes important, and there is a right way to go about the process to help assure that items of a collection can be saved or even restored.

Here is what one expert has to say about coping with the aftermath of fires.

Steve Cristin-Poucher’s experience as the objects conservator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art prompts him to say that the extent of damage from a fire will be determined by preparations made to prevent damage, response time of the fire fighters, the type of items to be salvaged and the steps taken to minimize the damage after a fire. He suggests using a “team” approach, delegating specific jobs to certain people, with each person carrying out the job.

Obviously substantial damage might have occurred from charring from flames, melting from heat, or water or percussion damage from the hoses spraying a fire.

A piece of a porcelain bowl. Collect all the pieces you can find in hopes of repair.

A piece of a porcelain bowl. Collect all the pieces you can find in hopes of repair.

So, after a fire, set up a “safe zone” where damage is minimal. Set out from that zone through the building to retrieve objects and assess them for restoration. Move slowly through the debris to avoid grinding items on the floor into the carpet or flooring. Ash should be sifted to find items, but the ash should not be discarded. It should be saved in a box and the box clearly labeled to designate the area from which the ash was collected. Later, the ash can be re-sifted for broken bits or pieces of an object. Cristin-Poucher says the process is like an archaeological dig in which everything is saved and all “tailings” are examined.

A smoke-damaged painting that has been partially restored.

A smoke-damaged painting that has been partially restored.

Wear old clothes, hard hats, snow or rain boots, gloves, aprons and other protective clothing to prevent injuries from broken glass and other hazards.

Items retrieved should be brushed lightly and given a light washing if appropriate to the item, then patted dry Controlled drying may be needed for items organic in nature since quick drying can cause shrinkage, and slow drying may cause mold or fungus growth. Cristin-Poucher says consult with an expert such as a museum curator or a professional conservator or restorer for advice.

Work tables need to be set up along with lots of paper towels, good lighting, brushes of various sizes and anything else needed to clean recovered objects. There should also be a safe storage area for items which are large or heavy.

A fire-damaged walnut headboard.

A fire-damaged walnut headboard.

The same headboard after repairs.

The same headboard after repairs.

Once you have salvaged all you can, it is then time to search out experienced and reputable restoration companies. Even if an cherished item looks doomed, don’t give up on it completely until you consult with an expert or two. When the restoration is completed, the piece may not retain its original value, but if it has sentimental value, getting the piece back in near-original condition will worth the effort.

—by Stephenie Slahor

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