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Caring for Your Collection, Where to Begin? – A Primer to Approach Collections

December 1, 2021

Thanks and Recognition to The Historic New Orleans Collection

The following article was garnered from a special 1-hour program presented by the Historic New Orleans Collection, where the experts of the HNOC and the specialists from their Decorative Arts of the Gulf South (DAGS) program combined to present the fundamentals of the care and treatment of historical collections of all types and antiques.  Executorium gratefully appreciates the cooperation provided by the HNOC in preparing this review of their program.  The program in its entirety will be posted to YouTube shortly, and we will post the link HERE.

Presenters:
– Lydia Blackmore, HNOC Decorative Arts Curator
– Sarah Duggan, Decorative Arts of the Gulf South Coordinator and Research Curator
– Elizabeth Palms and James Kelleher, 2021 DAGS fellows

 

Caring for Your Collection, Where to Begin?

Collection of toy cars

My own experience with a collection was limited to my late 20th-century beer bottle collection. Upon rediscovery of this “treasure” one afternoon in my mother’s attic, I self-appraised at 5¢ a bottle, 10¢ in Michigan and Oregon.  After some deep soul searching and reflection, I hauled this collection to the curb for the recycling guys.

So much more sophisticated now, I tended to the estate left in my care with wisdom, curiosity, and clean hands.  Still, overestimating my skills, I ham-handed several finds, the circumstances of which we shall refer to henceforth as “the cost of an education”.  I only wish I had encountered the program sponsored by The Historic New Orleans Collection, “Caring for Your Collection, Where to Begin?”, sooner.

The program insightfully provided a sensibility on how to approach collections of various types, and do so with care for value and preservation, yet with an emphasis on the enjoyment of a collection or item.  Estates pass collections and personalty from one generation to the next, or onward to another set of hands that will love and enjoy it as much as the last.  That’s what estates do.  However, while it is in an estate’s care, it is up to the executor to, as de jure fiduciary, to preserve and establish value, and as de facto caretaker, move the asset along with provenance, personality, and patina intact.

Here are some lessons and tips learned from this informative program.

 

Organization

Always a smart place to start, recording and “attaching” information on the pieces in your collection, including paperwork, backstories, reference information you’ve found, comps, serial or other reference numbers, how/when/where acquired, etc.  Photography of the collection may be advisable as well. If possible, keep these records and any original paperwork with the collection.  Keeping records and paperwork duplicates elsewhere is advisable.

FYI Antiques and fine collectibles professionals hate adhesive tape.  They hate it.  When we say “attach” we don’t mean adhesive tape.  Or a staple gun.

 

Handling

Estate Antiques

After digging through the attic, you come across great Aunt Tilly’s doll collection.  Dive in? NO!  Wash your hands!  Better to set aside these important boxes when they can get the time, clean hands, and clear workspace they deserve.  Slow your roll.

Plan your work area.  With the example above in mind, the environment where one discovers the collection or item may not be the best place to start taking stuff out and putting here, there, anywhere.  Plan a safe, clean space to work rather than risk Uncle Horace’s Mettlach Stein balancing on a suspect cardboard box on top of another “iffy” cardboard box while you dig in for more.

Consequently, the care taken in moving pieces and boxes is worth it.  (An ounce of prevention anyone?)  Please don’t pick up the Hepplewhite without a place planned to safely set it down, and a clear route to the destination.

Where to grab?  Think first, observe, proceed.  (And per above, plan your destination/landing area) Many items, may have stress points more sensitive than others.  You may not want to pick up a chair by its back, but by its seat.  You should avoid trusting handles on older pieces and hold and lift the body of an item.  Look for existing repairs where the material may already be a weak stress point and work around it.  Nothing worse than re-repairing a repair. Never trust a box bottom.

Gloves? Metals – OK, due to oils that may tarnish the piece.  Anything else?  Not necessary, and the loss of dexterity and grip may make a butterfingers out of the regularly dexterous.

 

Storage

Location. Location. Location.  This of course depends on the collection.  Antiques and fine collectibles professionals hate sunlight.  They hate sunlight almost as much as they hate scotch tape.  They hate extremes in temperature and humidity too – with good reason.  Sunlight, cold, heat, and humidity are not friendly to most materials, especially fragile sensitive antiques.  Wood especially is sensitive to humidity in particular.

 

That Ballantine Beer Box your grandfather stuffed your precious family photos in back in ’59 may have gotten them here, and nothing against Grandpa, but time for an upgrade.  Acid-Free boxes will protect photos and documents from mold, mildew, etc.  Please refer to the paragraph above because putting acid-free boxes full of treasure in a corner in the basement isn’t a great idea either.

Mylar sleeves are acid-free and a standard for the protection and preservation of documents, photographs, and ephemera.  One suggestion during The Historic New Orleans Collection event was that a document that is in use or on display could be photocopied to replace an original, allowing the original to be safely stored, out of the light, protected in Mylar for preservation.

 

Mini Glossary

Provenance – An item’s history, including origins, manufacture, ownership, and details.

Ephemera – Usually printed materials that had specific occasions, purpose, or lifespan.  Posters, pamphlets, advertising, postcards, etc

Patina – Material changes caused by time and environment.  Often protective, but transformative to an item’s appearance due to age.

Losses – Any range of material damage or wear to an item that affects the original condition.

 

Treatment of Collections

I inherited a record collection

 

Record Collections
Store records upright in original sleeves and jackets.  Adding a mylar outer sleeve is advisable for the protection of the outer jacket.  Archival acid-free boxes are made specifically for record collections and are commercially available.

Scrapbooks
Store scrapbooks in an acid-free box.  Items that have become separated over time may be stored adjacent in separate mylar sleeves. Items that need to be manually removed from the scrapbook may be separated using floss.

Antique Cameras
Please keep out of the sun.  Store in an unstressed condition (if the shutter is cocked, release to take the tension out of springs).  Acid-free box storage is recommended.

Newspapers, Magazines, Ephemera
Mylar. Acid-Free box storage.  Do NOT TAPE!

 

For more help…

Paper Conservators
These experts are knowledgeable as to the preservation and rescue of paper documents and paper artifacts.  Their combined art, skill, and alchemy provide respite to paper items that are distressed or needing preservation care.

Hoping (fingers crossed) for list? 🙂

Appraisal
These experts can often specialize in categories or disciplines or work as generalists.  Appraisal knowledge and training provide market (replacement) values to items across a vast scope of antiques and collectibles, helping collectors know what they have.

Hoping (fingers crossed) for list? 🙂

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