How to clean antique art

If you buy an artwork from a gallery, it will have been cleaned and restored and will be in perfect condition – what we call ‘mint’. If you buy from an auction house, it may need cleaning, relining and restoring, which is best done by a professional. When a piece of art is in mint condition, you do not need to do anything. A light dust with a very soft, dry duster once a year is all it requires. Also, do not put any kind of polish on an oil painting as this will affect the varnish.

Keep antique art away from sun and heat

Keep artworks away from heat sources such as radiators and fires. An oil painting will be on a canvas or a wooden panel. If a panel goes anywhere near a heat source it will warp and bend. Some oil paintings can be hung over a radiator, but there could be a risk of the paint drying and cracking.

Daylight does not usually affect oil paintings but it does damage watercolours and other works on paper, such as antique maps and old prints. UV sunlight will bleach them and they will fade.

If a piece of art, such as a watercolour, is affected by sunlight, you will notice that the colours have begun to wash out. Blue tends to go first and you’ll notice a blue sky has changed to a pale blue or sometimes white. A lot of our clients keep watercolours behind curtains or on a wall where the sunlight can’t reach them.

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Avoid foxing and flaking

Never hang a painting in a damp room. With watercolours, mould can completely ruin a picture. If mould gets into a watercolour, it will form a brown stain that we call ‘foxing’. It can be cleaned out by a professional restorer, but once mould is in it needs to be treated quickly.

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A professional can clean and restore the watercolour but paper can be very delicate and it can be quite a process. Also, for oil paintings, a damp environment isn’t good and, if excessive, can cause flaking.

Look out for cracking

What we call craquelure – hairline cracks in the paint – is nice to see and confirms the condition is old, but badly cracked paintings need to be treated by relining the piece to prevent paint loss. This is most likely to happen if the paint gets dry and overheated – sometimes it is just age.

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Antique art frames

Some people like to change the frame of a painting to have something that complements their home. If you do this, retain the original so that it stays with the work. The old one has age and history so it is good to keep them together.