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What Dirty Stuff Is On My Artwork?! – 3 Tips of what NOT to do!

During Cleaning/Removal of Grime and Yellowed Varnish.

During Cleaning/Removal of Grime and Yellowed Varnish.

A question I often get asked, “How do I clean my___________? My answer is a LONG list of sad stories of cleaning lady’s “gentile” or “light” cleaning techniques and dealers trying to save a buck. And yesterday, I got another such story to tell you:

I go to this lady’s house who has a painting in poor condition that she wants me to look at. When I get there, she shows me a landscape painting by Jack Wilkensen Smith (worth about $100,000.00 – go to that is flaking everywhere and looks really sad. I ask her to tell me about the history of the painting and she says, “The painting used to be so beautiful. It looked perfect except it looked dingy.” I asked what happened to it? “Well, I followed the artist’s instructions exactly but I don’t understand what happened.” I was puzzled about her following the artist’s instructions because he died about 75 years ago! The lady says, “The artist left a cleaning recipe written on the back of the painting.”

This is NOT the painting… but the painting in the story was by the same artist.
This is NOT the painting but the painting in the story was by the same artist.

This I gotta see. So I helped her get it off the wall and sure enough, there, written on the back of the painting in pencil were instructions on how to clean the painting written by the artist: “Take a cup of Ivory Soap flakes, dissolve them in two cups of warm water and wash the painting with a rag. Wipe clean with another clean wet rag.”


So, the result was massive cracking and flaking, whitening or blooming of the paint and varnish. Add to that distressing situation a loss in value of at least 25% that even a $3,000.00 restoration/conservation effort won’t recuperate completely.

You can’t really fault the ignorant woman for following the artist’s instructions but now, YOU know better! This kind of thing really makes my heart hurt.

Cleaning a painting… or any heirloom is NOT the type of thing you just do with a bottle of Pledge, Windex, 409 or any off the shelf product.

Professionals do a test to see what the problem is, make sure the original surface (paint) is stable, go slow enough not to get into trouble. If you are hell bent on doing something yourself, at least ask a professional for some advice and know your limits.

Which reminds me of a man who looked me up to ask for some advice: He had a really beautiful small 19th century parlor scene appraised for $25,000.00 and he wanted to clean the yellow varnish off. I did a couple of cleaning/solubility tests with a Q-Tip and a minuscule amount of solvent. I quoted him about $500 to do the job but the price was immaterial: he was a do-it-your-selfer. He saw that I was using a certain solvent for the tests but I warned him that the solvent I was using would attack the varnish that was mixed into the original paint and if he tried to clean this painting himself he WOULD damage the painting!

This is NOT the painting... but the style was similar.

This is NOT the painting... but the style was similar.

Next time I saw him, he showed me the painting that had been stripped of original paint and unrepairably damaged. The value of the once very beautiful artwork had to have been compromised at least 80+%. I got really mad at him reminding him of my warning. Then he threw it back in my face and said that the damage was my fault because I wouldn’t show him how to do it! What planet are some people on??!!!

Anyway, take what you can from these examples. As you can see, there are several lessons to be learned:

Tip #1 Never use off the shelf products to clean your artwork, antiques and heirlooms

Tip #2 Get professional coaching before you get into it… and take a clue!

Tip#3 If you don’t be careful with these treasures from the past, you will be responsible for ruining them and suffering the financial loss.

These historical, meaningful, beautiful items come to us from the past… and then pass through our care to the future. Be a good curator while they are in your care and responsibility.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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19 Responses to “What Dirty Stuff Is On My Artwork?! – 3 Tips of what NOT to do!”

  1. patty serviceman says:

    I suppose that these historical, meaningful, beautiful items come to us from the past… and then pass through our care to the future.

  2. Sam Rava says:

    Explanation is Wonderful and a nice piece of information. Thanks for sharing. We should have you on our talk show!

  3. Alex Jones says:

    We are really grateful for your blog post. Very timely.

  4. Andy Smithson says:

    Many thanks to Scott for the information provided here.
    Andy Smithson´s last blog post ..Showbox Not Working, Show Box Video Not Available Server Error Fix

  5. Linda says:

    Yes! Wonderful explanation. I have found it very useful. I will read all your articles in this blog soon. Thanks for posting. Keep going Scott!! Thumb ups
    Linda´s last blog post ..Movie Tube for iPad Download (iPad Mini/Air/Air 2)

  6. keeping us warm, Miriam demonstrates to me industry standards to do it circle through each of them, her share of our workshop lunch of bean stew, spinach, potatoes and chapatti.
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  7. Scott says:

    Justin, good thoughts. There are simple things a person can do at home to get great results and I’m not against “maintenance” and safe measures to make your family history memorabilia look better. Stay tuned for lots of tips.

  8. Justin Adams says:

    Cleaning my antiques is always a question I have. I’ve tried it a couple of times… and I’m sorry I did. Although I’ve never ruined anything, the final results is never as good a job as I hoped for and is never satisfying. Thanks for your insights. Whether I do it again or not on my own, your point of view as a seasoned professional is valuable and I’ll give my “urges to do it myself” some serious thought.

  9. Scott says:

    Thanks for asking Mark,
    In the side bar, at the top it says to put in your email if you want to be notified when we update the blog. This does NOT put you on a mailing list but is only for an update list. Hope to see you here again soon.

  10. William Bizertino says:

    Brilliant stuff. I love collectibles and your info is right on, as you Yanks say! Your article is really good. There are sooo many ways to screw up your art and antiques by being a by-your-seat, do-it-yourselfer. I’ve learned the hard way to get professional help/opinions before I start mucking about. Im glad you took the time to share it. I’ll sign up for your tips… brilliant resource.

  11. Larry Love says:

    Hey very nice blog!!….I’m an instant fan, I have bookmarked you and I’ll be checking back on a regular….See ya

  12. Bettie Jones says:

    As you know, here at Martha Stewart we’re all about home care and clean. So, your article touched on things we never talk about! Or at least we never talk about it in this way. While we’ve talked about photo albums, scrapbooks and family “stuff”, preserving and protecting isn’t really our focus, when it ought to be.

    So, since reading your post, I’ve been searching around the Internet for other info and have found that your expertise and info is really great compared to anything else I’m finding… definitely useful stuff. Your blog is precisely what I/we need… and we’ll be back in touch. Thanks

  13. Remy Stones says:

    Hey Great post. Really a very nice piece of information. Newbies like me get a good idea about this… I’m going to comment now… I think i did it. Thank you.. I’m going to get a copy of your book.

  14. Mrs. Isabel Barns says:

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post moved me to do so. Excellent information and thank you!

  15. Garret Otis says:

    Hi there, Thanks for the informative blog. I’ll check out your book. Thanks

  16. Joan Smith says:

    I enjoyed the article and thanks for posting such useful information.

  17. Jaymie Shea says:

    The information presented is top notch. I’ve been doing some research on the topic and this post answered several questions.

  18. Scott says:

    Thanks for your continuous nice comments Amanda. Check out the free info under “Products” too. Consider my book. Its a very good read. And, let others know, please.

  19. Amanda Smith says:

    The most comprehensive info I have found on this subject on the net. Will be back soon to follow up.

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