To Clean… Or Not To Clean

One of the most enduring debates in the world of fine art and collectibles is more nuanced than just whether or not to clean an item. This controversial subject is generally debated in a cerebral and studious manner among aficionados, experts, collectors and academics. But often, the discussion turns ugly.

I have never seen fisticuffs or weaponry used, but believe me, the discussion is passionate. Included among the naysayers (those who think an item should be left alone) are art historians, originalists (my term), purists, and those who like to investigate — they love to collect, buy and sell silver that has a deep patina (tarnish), and paintings with shellac or crusty smoke film, craquelure (cracks) or estate dust (dirt).

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Those who favor items that have been fully restored (“messed with” says the other side) include interior decorators, retailers and, in my view, criminals. I’m not saying my wife is a criminal. Far from it. However, we do differ on this point. (On a trip to Munich, my lovely wife posed for a photo in front of the weathered, 600-year-old Rathaus Glockenspiel (pictured). Tourists come by the thousands each day to view the glockenspiel in the old blackened-with-age building. She quipped, “You know, a couple of days of hard scrubbing and soap No. 5 could clean this building up.” (Sigh.) It is just a matter of taste in some cases, and in others a matter of originality.

Repairing A Damaged Painting

We once bought a damaged painting for six figures from a Tampa resident, and before shipping told Sotheby’s we would get the rip in the canvas repaired. They cautioned us not to, explaining that a lot of people took the rip as a sign of originality, and other buyers would just prefer to have their own expert fix it.

So, yes, there are two sides to the story — and for sure, the polished-up, gleaming silver that Katrina favors looks stunning next to the blackened tarnish that I favor, but it must be done expertly.

All experts agree there are a handful of things that should never, ever be cleaned. To do so would make the piece lose a lot of value. These things include coins, samurai swords and, most notably, bronze sculptures and old furniture. (Katrina may disagree.)

This is an archival article formerly written and is for informational purposes only. The valuations in this article have likely changed since it was first written.

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