When dust, grime, and oxidation occurs, scrub with caution—otherwise, you may scrub them of their value.
apprentice clock repairer in workshop
Credit: Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Collectibles are meant to be enjoyed for many years and across generations. People like to collect a variety of items for the nostalgia, for their inherent value, or simply because they like them. You might find a collector's item that is not in mint condition or your items could become dirty from an accident. What then? You may think a restorative cleaning is the answer. But many collectibles should never be cleaned with water. "Antiques are by definition items that are at least 100 years old," explains Nicolas Martin, founder of Flea Market Insiders. "Even items that were made with noble and water resistant material a 100 years ago, are very probably not water-resistant or water-friendly anymore." Water could permanently damage the item or even initiate a faster decay process.

Martin strongly advises against cleaning a collectible or antique if you aren't sure of the proper way to do so. Consider the material and the age of the item. Some items—like paintings, photographs or clockwork—require a professional. Very old and delicate items also need to be handled with extreme care. Immersing the collectible in water or applying water to its surface could mean losing the item forever.

Clockwork and Gears

Collectibles like watches, music boxes, and lock mechanisms should never be cleaned with water. The gears and other mechanical parts in the item could rust and cease to function properly. Instead, you'll want to wipe away fingerprints and dust using a microfiber cloth and very gentle motions. Extensive cleaning should be done by a professional.

Books, Magazines, and Papers

Old books, magazines, and papers should not be immersed in water or spritzed with wetting agents. If the paper is very old, this could cause it to crumble or disintegrate. Books and magazines may also become loose at their bindings. "If you accidentally dropped an antique book in a bucket of water, you will need to first dry out the cover and pages, before flattening out the pages," Martin says. "Flattening a wet book will make the pages stick together, and render it unusable."

Want to have an expert restore your book? Place the wet book in a ziplock bag and put it in the freezer until you can get it to a professional book restorer.

Photograph Prints

Original photograph prints of people from previous eras are a hot collector item. If you find an old photograph that needs some tender loving care, don't try to clean it up with water. Water ruins the emulsion used on the photograph or could completely damage the clarity of the image.

Depending on the type of photograph, you may be able to purchase special photograph cleavers and tools to aid in cleaning your photographs. Wear white cotton gloves to avoid introducing new smudges to the photos. The cleaning  process will take several hours, so be ready to put in some time. But if you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself or aren't sure of how to do it, take your photos to a photograph restoration service for the best results.

Leather Clothing and Collectibles

That leather jacket from the 1950s should not go into the washing machine. When leather gets wet, it begins to lose its suppleness, becoming dry and brittle. Depending on the collectible, this could mean that it will easily break apart or start to disintegrate. While you can clean newer leather with a wet washcloth, that is not the case for older leather. Instead you should invest in an antique leather dressing to clean and restore the old leather.

What about other leather items? "Leather (books cover, leather bag, and so on) could be cleaned with a damp cloth to remove superficial dust and dirt," says Martin. "However, it is important to make sure the surface is left dry, and that a protective paste or dressing is applied afterward."

Oil and Acrylic Paintings

Even when preserved in a frame on the wall, they do still attract grime and dust to their surfaces over time. How can you keep a painting clean? The good news is that special cleaners exist for ridding your artwork of grime. You just don't want to use anything that is water based. Cleaning a painting takes time and precision. You'll want to photograph your painting front and back before you begin. Apply the cleaning solution to a cotton swab and gently stroke in a rolling motion to remove dirt. You can also take your painting to a professional restorer, which is recommended for older and more valuable paintings.


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