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The Care and Conservation of Antique Prints

For many collectors of antique works on paper – specifically antique prints – the care and preservation of their valuable collection is the most vexing issue they face. It need not be. A little common sense, and sometimes a healthy dose of restraint, will go a long way toward making sure that your important, unique, and hard-won collection remains preserved for generations to come.

The production process used in the making of your antique print does not alter in any significant way the care that it needs. Whether it be a lithograph, copperplate engraving, mezzotint, or other process, the basics of caring for the print remain essentially the same. Broadly speaking, there are four major aspects of good conservation that the average collector should be aware of. These four key areas are: handling, repairs, framing, and storage. If you follow some simple rules in all these areas, your prized possessions should retain their good condition and value.

Handling damage is at the top of the list for a very good reason. In my opinion, as a dealer in antique prints, more problems are caused by careless handling than any other single problem. Great care must be exercised when handling an antique print, because the paper itself is so fragile. You only need to accidentally tap the edge of an antique print against a sharp corner, such as the edge of a desk, to cause serious chipping. If the print has little or no margin, an event like this can be catastrophic to the image area. Pervasive as it is, handling damage is an aspect of conservation that can easily be solved by common sense. First, do not work with your prints unless you have the time and space to do so. Handle them when things are quiet, not when your toddler needs attention. Second, make sure you have the space to put them down safely, such as a large table. Third, wear thin cotton gloves, available from framing supply stores. And finally, nless you are dealing with large numbers of very inexpensive prints, it is always a good idea to have each one stored loosely (not “encapsulated”) in a mylar sleeve. Mylar is a crystal-clear, polyester film, and it is very easy to find on the internet. Beware of imitations, and specify Mylar, because Mylar does not interact chemically with the print.

At some point in time, almost all collectors of antique prints are tempted to “fix” a defect by themselves. My response is: don’t, don’t, and don’t. All of the things that are commonly attempted on antique paper – the removal of stains, wrinkles, and pencil marks, the mending of a tear, the filling of a hole, or, heaven forbid, the “whitening” of a darkened piece of paper – all these actions have the potential to cause irreversible damage, and to seriously reduce or eliminate the value of a given piece. Professional conservators spend years learning how to perform these complex tasks correctly – and they will be the first to tell you of the perils they face with each job. Leave the restoration to the conservators.

Framing is another area that can often bring trouble. Yet, a few easy tips can usually ensure a successful framing project. First, use a good framer. Call a local museum and ask who they recommend. Ask friends or acqauintances for recommendations. Don’t be afraid to shop around. Then, expect to pay a bit more. Good framing is expensive, but it should outlast all of us. When you are satisfied you have selected a good framer, you should be comfortable in being guided by them, but here are a few “musts.” You must use “anti-uv” or “conservation” framing glass. This will deflect most of the harmful light that can destroy paper over time. If you are using matboard, you must use “archival” quality matboard, so it does not, as time passes, chemically interact with the print. You must never allow antique paper to be adhered in any way to a backing board. You must insist on archival quality backing board. Insisting on these basic steps will take you a long way toward a successful framing job – and finally, don’t hang your finished piece in direct sunlight, near a direct heat source, or in a humid area such as a bathroom.

Framing, when done correctly, is one of the best ways of storing antique works of art on paper. But since it is both expensive and space-demanding, it is rarely the complete solution for most collectors. Good, long-term storage can be accomplished by keeping antique prints in mylar, stored flat, in a dry, cool space. Excessive heat and excessive humidity are enemies of antique paper, but many homes today are climatized to avoid such excessive conditions. If you need to store a number of loose prints, the best solution is to use one of the many excellent archival boxes that are available on the market.

After a little practice, even the newest collector can quickly master the basics of good care for antique prints. Common sense is your greatest ally, and most often, your greatest enemy will be the dangers posed by poor handling. So learn the basics, treat the antique paper with the respect it deserves, and always “handle with care,” and your collection will bring pleasure and joy for many generations to come.


About the Author

Neil Street is the owner of VintageMaps.Com, which he founded in 1997. His website, an online destination for the antique map and antique print enthusiast, is at http://www.vintagemaps.com Send email to ncstreet@vintagemaps.com He can also be reached at (203)856-1755

Neil Street