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To clean or not to clean; that, is the question or Where there’s muck, there’s brass

Touchstone towers has been a bit of a crash site for the last three weeks (which is why there have been no blogs for a wee while). We have been running ourselves ragged: up to our eyes in antiques fairs, and a busman’s holiday to a top end fair at the NEC in Birmingham followed by processing our finds and listing them online.
Said processing and the NEC fair, along with some online discussions, set me thinking about the issue of cleaning metals. To set the scene: some dealers (and indeed buyers) feel the quest for aesthetic purity is best left in the buyer’s hands, while others believe sanitation a side-step from deification (or at least the word of the Great Profit). It always boils down to the distinction between patina and muck.
Quite proper patina on bronze
To me patina is a rich hue, a natural intonation of the metal and an enhancement of the metal’s vibrancy: only really applying to bronze and (sometimes) pewter. Patina generally is not a layer but a chemical reaction (akin to the bleaching of wood in sunlight).
There is truth in the idea that patina accrues over an object’s lifetime and tells its story; therefore to clean is, in essence, removing its provenance. The condition in which an “antique” should be sold, it is argued, should be that which the object has become. If a buyer wishes it to be clean it is then up to them to have it cleaned or break out the Brasso themselves.
The sloth in me would be inclined to agree but it leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling. I was horrified to read one online seller suggest that buyers prefer blackened silver jewellery. Really? Imagine wearing a pair of silver earrings with someone else’s ear-wax, skin and finger grease still clinging to the hooks.
Dirt and patina should not however, be confused. For example, black silver or tarnished gold, brown brass or copper and crusty gemstones are all the result of layers of damp and dust, dead skin, oils and grime from handling which will eventually damage the metal and depreciate its intrinsic quality. If an item has been cared for over its lifetime, it will not accrue such discolouration; consequently the metal should remain bright. Furthermore dirt and grime often cover the detail and design which, after all, is what gives an item its collectability and aesthetic value.
The revelation of detail
Touchstone Vintage sell at fairs of all descriptions and having just returned from a high-end fair I have this observation to make. At lower end and mid-range fairs, many sellers (though not all) empty cases of “junk” onto tables unsorted and unloved creating a free-for-all feel antiques lucky dip.
I have so often been disappointed to find a dent or crack under the dirt which makes my purchase worthless, by the same token I have in some cases (though on much rarer occasions) been delighted to find a hallmark which adds immeasurable worth.
At the top end, sellers have no dirty brass, copper, silver or gold in their cabinets and for that certain guarantees can be made. From 17thcentury silverware to Art Nouveau copperware, none of these sellers would consider placing dirty metal on their stands whether it could be considered patina or not. Everything at the NEC sparkled: beautifully lit and in pristine condition.
For many I think the argument not to clean becomes a defensive strategy to excuse lethargy (it often goes hand in hand with a lack of research) but I will never denigrate that as it is from these sellers that I find Victorian silver masquerading as damaged plate or Newlyn copper hidden beneath a century of grime.
Sold as degraded silver-plate, but the dirt hid
a Victorian hallmark
And good luck to them if they want to miss the extra income – a beautifully cleaned, identified and preserved antique can be worth ten times its dirty counterpart. I’m no venture capitalist but I would take a 100% return over 10% every time if the difference is a few minutes elbow grease.
There is, I suppose, no right or wrong answer here and the result will depend on the market, the buyer and the object itself. We personally feel it is our duty to both the antiques and our customers to present our wares in the best possible light, to have researched and understood what we sell and to preserve the underlying aesthetic quality of our pieces.
For that reason I am off to discover a Georgian hallmark on some tongs I was assured were silver-plate. Now, where did I put my cloth?
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