In many family collections, the passed-down silverware holds a prominent place, displayed for guests to see as a point of pride. From teapots to utensils, old silverware can be polished up to sparkle and shine, positively reflecting on the owners’ obvious care for their history.
When you tour historic mansions, the gleaming silver is frequently a highlight. When you enter a formal dining room and see the fancy platters, tea sets, and utensils displayed upon the table, it may momentarily transport you to another era, giving you the feeling that you really are a privileged house guest of the Vanderbilts or Astors.
In our family collection, we have a few nice silver pieces (although nothing that would ever tarnish the home of a Vanderbilt or an Astor). We try to take good care of them, but it’s hard work!
For advice on the care of silver, I turned to Kory Berrett of Berrett Conservation Studio. Kory has worked on conserving metals of all kinds, from Civil War swords to silverware that was owned by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. I asked Kory if it would be possible for me to keep our silver in as good condition as those beautiful pieces that I see in museums and historic homes. He shared that they use some tricks that may not be available to common folk:
“Tarnish is caused by trace amounts of pollutants in concert with middle and higher relative humidity values. In keeping with the original intention behind these objects, silver should be polished as needed for use or display. The quicker it tarnishes, the more often polishing will be required. But it’s important to remember that every time one polishes a silver item, it loses a tiny bit of surface material. In the case of historic sterling silver with engravings or chased decoration this results in softening of the decoration and may eventually wear away important engravings; in the case of silver plate, the result will be removal of the silver to reveal the copper or other base metal below – significantly disfiguring the object.
“When working with institutions that have historic silver on long term display, various strategies are used to break the cycle of polishing, and thus preserve the surface. One strategy is to keep silver artifacts in display cases that eliminate all sources of pollution, filter incoming air or seal out air altogether, and keep humidity values low. This isn’t possible in historic house settings since the cases themselves are out of place. Here there may be a cycle of routine polishing or perhaps a coating program in place. The silver is treated by a conservator to give it the best possible cleaning and most conservative polishing, followed by an application of a natural or synthetic lacquer coating to preserve the bright finish. However, even the best coatings still require periodic maintenance.”
In our case, we’ll have to keep to polishing. Kory warns that there are consequences for failing to polish: “I’ve seen lots of artifacts left to tarnish in poor storage conditions over long periods that have become permanently marred or disfigured. These surfaces will bear the scars of neglect even after they’ve been cleaned and polished.” The only solution is a diligent yet conservative approach to polishing. “There are some good commercial polishes and some not so good, due to heavy abrasive content or alkalis like ammonia hidden under perfumed additives. Check with a local museum for recommendations that are brand specific.”
© 2011 Lee Price