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Worth Saving 

What do you do and where do you turn when you want to salvage damaged antiques, art and heirloom treasures?

By now most of us have seen the mountains of debris that have become a symbol of Hurricane Katrina's wrath. According to the mayor's office, more than 2.4 million cubic yards of debris have been removed to date, and for every waterlogged piece of posterity that's been pitched, there's another that, with the right care, may still stand the test of time. Despite the ravages of water and mold, restoration experts and conservators agree that locals need not part with all of their cherished belongings. There's plenty that can be done to save fine art, antiques, and sentimental treasures.

The first order of business for saving nearly all water-damaged objects is to dry them thoroughly. This means different things for different materials. Wood furniture, for example, should be dried out slowly -- it could take months, depending on the piece -- to avoid causing more damage. Before making any hasty decisions, consider an item's heritage and quality. A well-made piece that stood in floodwater will fare better than an inferior one, but even the most fragile items like antique fabrics and photographs can be saved with the help of a professional.

Some insurance policies may cover restoration costs for fine arts. When attempting to salvage something on your own, conservators always advise having each piece professionally assessed. If you can't get to a conservator right away, the following tips for basic triage may be helpful in the interim.

Wooden Furniture

Water-damaged wooden pieces should be dried thoroughly and slowly in a ventilated, dry area; dehumidifiers can help. Drying wooden furniture in the sun is not recommended because it can draw the moisture out of the swollen wood too quickly and cause it to buckle or come apart.

Clean moldy areas with a solution of bleach and water. (The piece can still be damp when you clean it). Guidelines for proportions of bleach and water vary; FEMA guidelines recommend 1/4-cup bleach to a gallon of water. Use a spray bottle to apply the solution and wipe the entire piece -- inside, outside, back and underneath -- with a clean cloth. When removing mold, you should wear a mask or respirator and rubber gloves.

To remove water lines from legs, restorer Bobby Franks of Uptown Restoration (7428 Zimple St., 865-9622) recommends applying dark brown Briwax with 0000-grade fine steel wool; then buffing the legs with a soft cotton cloth. If that doesn't work, use 220-grade sandpaper and go through same process. Store the piece in a dry place. Partially missing reliefs and carvings can be replicated. Frames and Mirrors Water is the enemy of materials like gold leaf and plaster. Frames and mirrors should be dried out slowly so they don't crack, peel or break apart. If they are moldy, spray them lightly with Lysol aerosol. Don't rub, wipe or use solvents or cleaning products because it can remove finishes like gold leaf. If mold is dry and powdery, take the piece outside and brush off the mold with a clean, dry paintbrush taking care not to inhale the airborne spores. Paintings If there is mold on a painting, lightly spray the back with Lysol to help arrest the growth. Never use bleach or commercial cleaners on a painting.

When mold is dry or powdery, take the painting outside and gently brush it off with a clean, dry paintbrush. If the paint itself appears to be blistering, flaking or powdery, don't brush it off. Wait until a painting conservation specialist can assess it. Store the painting face up to reduce the risk of losing any paint that may flake off. Paper Place wet books that don't have coated, glossy paper in a plastic bin with a lid, stacked with the largest books on the bottom and the smallest on top. Put the bin in a freezer, preferably non-frost-free, for three months. This will remove moisture in the paper. After three months, take leave the bin outside for an hour before opening it. If the books are still cool or wet, put the bin in the freezer for another month or so.

Dirt, water stains and deactivated mold will remain on the paper. When they are dry, take them outside and use a cotton cloth, sponges or soft brushes to remove dirt and deactivated mold.

As for art, a professional conservator can treat works on paper in a fungicidal chamber and wash them. In the meantime, you can follow these do-it-yourself stopgap measures: If possible, take the artwork out of the frame and remove it from wet cardboard and matting. Lay the work flat on a towel or absorbent, white paper. To stop mold, lightly spray the back with Lysol aerosol. Archival materials, personal papers and business records that are wet and stuck together can be treated the same as books. Photographs Modern photographs are nearly impossible to restore to their original state because of the fragile and unforgiving nature of the medium. Most restoration of modern photographs is done digitally, and because photo restoration of any kind is costly, it's best reserved for only the most meaningful or valuable photographs where enough detail remains to be enhanced. In the meantime, damage can be stabilized with a few steps.

If possible, gently pry apart wet, muddy photos that are stuck to frames or each other (if too fragile, have a professional do it). If already dry, the emulsion turns to glue and they will be stuck together. If a photo is stuck to the glass in a frame, a professional can scan the image through the frame and digitally restore it. After separating wet photos, rinse with clean, filtered water and lay flat to dry for 24 to 48 hours. They will curl up but can be flattened later. Textiles Drying water-damaged fabrics such as quilts, flags, samplers, antique clothing, curtains and rugs is critical. Depending on how long a rug, for instance, was in water, dry rot may have set in. Once dried, fabrics can be assessed in terms of cleaning. Rugs should be cleaned professionally.

Large pieces should be laid flat in a ventilated area or outside to dry, then brought indoors. Remove the frame and mounting from framed pieces affected by humidity. Only vacuuming removes spores; use a HEPA vacuum if possible and change the filter frequently.

Hand dry-cleaning (of items that can not be wet cleaned) by a conservator may be sufficient for things that did not get wet. For pieces touched by floodwater, wet cleaning is preferable for removing pollutants. Large items like quilts can be washed in a bathtub using Orvus (available at a feed store); smaller items, such as a christening dress, can be washed in a plastic tub. Wash and rinse until water is clean. Metal The following steps are for aggressive, one-time cleaning to remove tarnish from silver, not for regular maintenance. Clean with Simichrome polish or Flitz (which can be purchased at a boat-supply store) with a stiff toothbrush. Wipe with a cotton rag or paper towel, then rinse in hot water. Polish with regular silver polish. If this method doesn't work, silver can be professionally cleaned.

Wipe iron and steel with a penetrating oil like WD40. For guns, disassemble the weapons being careful not to get the wood oily. Take valuable guns to a competent gunsmith or restorer if possible.

Bronze statuary needs professional attention, and most brass needs to be professionally polished. Bronze needs to be thoroughly cleaned and repatinaed by a pro to attempt to match the original finish. (A photo is helpful when trying to return a piece to its original patina.)

Metal chandeliers should be cleaned and rewired by a professional.

To remove rust from metal furniture, use a power wire brush with a surface lubricant like WD40 or mineral spirits, then rinse with mineral spirits. Prime and paint.

Handmade hardware and fittings from antiques and old buildings can be removed, professionally restored and reused. When in Doubt Seeking the expertise of a conservator or restorer is worth the effort and expense. Many offer advice and look at items for free, and all are steadfast in their commitment to preserving the past and our connection to it. "We're helping people salvage bits of their former lives and stabilize their emotions," says master cabinetmaker and furniture restorer Greg Arceneaux of Arceneaux Cabinetmakers Inc. (703 W. 26th St., Covington, (985) 893-8782. "Don't throw it away until it's been examined," adds Blake Vonder Haar of the New Orleans Conservation Guild (3620 Royal St., 944-7900). "This is history." The guild can help with paintings, porcelain, glass, stone, ceramic, frames, wood artifacts, gilded surfaces and works on paper.

Others who can help with your post-hurricane needs include Shamil Salah of Hudson-Salah Art Conservation Studios (4500 Dryades St., 891-2695), who works with paintings; Jessica Hack and Bryce Reveley of Gentle Arts (4500 Dryades St., 366-0786 for Hack or 895-5628 for Reveley), who work with textiles; Chris Bennett of Bennett's Camera & Video (3230 Severn Ave., Metairie, 885-9050), Christopher Matthews of Christopher's Photography (4521 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie, 454-1225), Milestone Photography (463-0662) or Professional Color Service (604 Papworth Ave., Metairie, 835-3551) for photography; Renee de Ville of De Ville Book & Paper Restoration (864-8019) for books and paper: Ellis Joubert (899-1746) for metal; and Dombourian's (2841 Magazine St., 891-6601) or Russell's Cleaners (3704 Robertson St., Metairie, 832-1546) for rugs.

click to enlarge Blake Vonder Haar shows an artwork in an antique frame as - another conservator works to restore a painting at the New - Orleans Conservation Guild. - DAVID RICHMOND
  • David Richmond
  • Blake Vonder Haar shows an artwork in an antique frame as another conservator works to restore a painting at the New Orleans Conservation Guild.
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