Tuesday, 23 September 2014




Yesterday, I made the wonderful mistake of going to the final day of the Victoria College Book Sale. It just so happened to be the day that the already-low book prices were marked down by another 50%. You can therefore understand when I say that it was both wonderful (because the prices were utterly fantastic) and a mistake (because maybe I already have too many books).

My mistake became even more apparent when I stumbled upon a 1992 copy of Sotheby’s “Caring for Antiques: A Guide to Handling, Cleaning, Display and Restoration.” See, I had already written you all a lovely blog post about emergency conservation three days ago. However, when I flipped through this delightful book’s pages and saw so many weird and wonderful tips for artefact conservation, I realized that this gem had to be shared.

Red book cover with white writing and a photo in the centre of a close-up desk scene
The book in question. Source.

So, without further ado, I present to you my favourite conservation tidbits from our friends at Sotheby’s.

Note: For those of you wondering, as I have directly quoted the book in places, I am providing MLA citations. The bibliographic entry may be found at the bottom of this post.

1. Washing a ceramic? Check for glaze.
“Unglazed ceramic with a porous body should only be dusted. Water applied to such a body would soak in, taking with it the surface dirty, causing discolouration" (Simon and Huntley 40). They are also adamant about no dishwashers. Don't do it.

2. Waxing on about mother-of-pearl.
“Mother-of-pearl, ivory, and tortoiseshell can be used for surface decoration… Loose dust should be removed with a soft brush, followed by an application of microcrystalline wax” (26).

3. Give your sick glass a check-up.
“There is a deterioration phenomenon, often referred to as ‘diseased’ or ‘sick’ glass… Diseased glass… may eventually crizzle (crack). [Maintain] a suitable environment of 42% relative humidity for glass affected in this way…” (46).

Tall glass goblet with a bubbled stem that has a surface covered in cracks
Crizzling: Exhibit A. Source.

4. Lift the spirits of your metalwork.
“Remove deposits of candle wax by warming the object… until [it] softens and lifts off cleanly… if warming fails… use a cotton-wool swab dipped in turpentine or white spirit…” (55).

5. Treat metal instruments with the caution of a surgeon.
“…[F]ingerprints, which contain salt, sodium chloride, lactic acid, and amino and fatty acids, are highly corrosive… It is advisable to wear either clean white cotton gloves… or plastic surgical gloves when handling scientific instruments…” (99).

6. X-ray on a global scale.
“Globes can incur various types of damage… If the internal structure does appear to be failing… then it may be worthwhile to have it X-rayed” (100).

Part of an x-ray of an old globe showing its surface and the internal metal structure
A close-up example of a globe X-ray. Source.

7. What does the fox(ing) say?
“The ideal relative humidity for paper artefacts is 50-60%... above 65% provides a perfect environment for the culture of mold – and also encourages the micro-organisms which cause the discoloration known as ‘foxing’ to develop” (117).

8. Brush up on your knowledge of book care.
“Books with solid head edges – gilt or waxed – may be dusted with a hogshair brush. Grip the fore-edge of the book firmly closed and brush from spine to fore-edge” (147).

A person grips the spine of an old book to keep it closed while brushing its edge clean
Cleaning along the fore-edge. Source.

Hopefully you have learned something new after reading this list. Whether you ever encounter a situation where you have to use one of these methods or not, at least you now have some fun facts to take with you to your next networking event or to share with friends!

        Simpson, Mette Tang, and Michael Huntley, eds. Caring for Antiques: A Guide to Handling, Cleaning, Display and Restoration. London: Conran Octopus, 1992. Print.


  1. These are great tips! I love your titles. I once watched a conservation video which referred to dust as a bunch of tiny knives (cue dramatic music) which would absolutely ruin your objects. I feel like the same fervour could be applied to your book's stance on dishwashers, haha.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your great feedback, Meaghan - much appreciated. I'm definitely going to reserve that description of dust for future use. Though dramatic, I can see its effectiveness in inspiring more frequent dusting sessions in museums!

  2. Very cool post! Thank you, Madeline, for sharing your book sale treasure with us!

    1. My pleasure, Brittney. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed reading it!

  3. Madeline, as you continue with this column, you might have people stopping you on the iSchool hallways (and even the streets of U of T) to ask you for tips :) These are all great tips and very useful!

    1. Thank you very much, Professor. I certainly hope that it starts some interesting conversations about conservation within and outside of the iSchool!