Top Ten Problem Solvers for the Antiques Lover
1. Identifying lead seepage
Before anyone realised how incredibly toxic it was, lead was a common ingredient used in glazes on earthenware and bone china prior to firing. Age, wear, poor quality firing and cracks in the glaze can all contribute to the leaching of the glaze onto the surface of the item. So how can you tell if you've got a problem? You can simply wash your item and examine it when it dries. If a chalky dust forms on the surface, you've got lead seepage. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to get rid of the item, but it should be used for display purposes only and should never come into contact with food or liquid.
2. Giving the lie to radioactivity
Although it sounds dangerous because it's called uranium glass - and yes, it does contain low levels of radiation - the greeny-yellow glass that glows under light is not unsafe to have in your home. The radiation levels are very low and well under the accepted guidelines for daily exposure. However, if you happen to damage a piece of uranium glass it's better to be on the safe side and dispose of it rather than keeping it in the house. The glass can be washed in warm, soapy water but make sure you don't scrub it and cause scratches to the surface.
3. Reviving leather
Here's one you can use the morning after a party: stale beer is perfect for reviving dull leather! A lemon sliced in half will have the same result - polish with a soft cloth afterwards. If the leather has grease spots on it, use some eucalyptus oil on a cloth and rub in a circular motion, then polish. If it's mildew that's your problem, you need a solution of a tablespoon of vinegar in half a litre of warm water. Wipe off and then dry the leather and polish.
4. Something smells funny...
Often an old piece of furniture comes complete with its own smells. If you don't like what wafts out when you open a drawer, sprinkle some bicarbonate of soda, fresh lavender or car litter inside - they will absorb the smell. Dolls can also have their own aroma and it's not always pleasant. The best way to eliminate the smell is to cover the doll with a white cloth and then seal it in a box with fresh newspapers and leave it for several days. The chemicals in the ink from the papers will work as a deodorizer.
5. To clean... or not to clean
Not everything old is improved by making it shinier. The dark patina on antique bronze gives it a significant part of its value; never polish it off. Restrict yourself to dusting it with a clean cloth. Bronze is also very sensitive to its environment, and can be harmed if it's kept in a room where cleaning products containing chlorine are used. It might sound a bit over the top, but it's also a good idea to wear soft cotton gloves when handling uncoated brass, because salts and oils from your skin can etch into the metal.
6. Caring for the jewels
Most jewellery is sensitive to the effects of perfume, hairspray, makeup and skin oils, so it's a good idea to get yourself ready and then put your jewellery on at the last minute. Organic materials such as coral, amber, shell and ivory are particularly sensitive, and they are also susceptible to damage from extreme heat and cold, so should be kept somewhere with a moderate temperature. All jewellery should be stored separated from other pieces to prevent scratching and other damage, and this is especially true of the softer gems and also hollow items, which might be easily dented. You should never, ever wear your antique jewellery in a swimming pool - the water contains chemicals that can be harmful.
7. The fading light
Everyone knows that you need to display watercolours and paintings away from direct sunlight to prevent them from fading. The same is also true for fabrics, tins, tin signs, ephemera, plastics and even furniture, which will fade in strong sunlight. But did you know that fluorescent light can also cause fading and discolouration?
8. Marvels of marble
Make sure you display any marble figures away from a fireplace or a window that is regularly opened, because pollutants from the atmosphere can cause a discolouration. There's another good reason to keep marble away from a fireplace - the intense heat can cause cracking or scorching. A marble surface can be damaged by anything hot being placed on it - it will cause heat rings that have to be polished off - and acids (including fruit juices) will also damage it even if it has been sealed and polished because they will eat into the polished surface. If you have white marble, don't wax it because this can cause a yellow colouration.
9. Cleaning vintage linen
Vintage linen is delicate so you need to take care when cleaning it. Using a vacuum on low suction to remove surface dirt and dust helps prepare it for washing, but it's a good idea to use a piece of tulle between the vacuum and the item to protect it. The linen can be washed in a mild cleaning solution but should be rinsed in distilled water to make sure all the soap has been removed. Stubborn stains can be treated using lemon juice and salt, and if that doesn't work, try drying the fabric flat on the grass - apparently it works wonders for removing stains! If you want to iron the linen make sure you do it quickly and restrict the amount of starch used. Never, ever send vintage linen to the dry cleaners - the chemicals are too harsh and both these and the heat will cause damage.
10. The family silver
Tarnish is the enemy of silver, but with a little bit of effort it can be prevented. Humidity is the most common cause of tarnish, so keeping silver and silver plated items out of a damp environment is a good start. There are also special anti-tarnish cloths available in jewellers and department stores where new silver is sold. Camphor blocks do the same job, but make sure they don't touch the silver itself. If you end up with melted wax on silver candlesticks, DO NOT use a knife to try and scrape it off - you'll almost certainly scratch the surface. Instead, the wax can usually be removed simply by running the item under hot water. Don't soak the silver for any length of time, and make sure you dry it thoroughly with a clean, lint-free cloth.