A quick internet search will give two or three fast ways to clean and polish silver. Unfortunately, all of them could be removing value along with the tarnish, which is why the most commonly touted ways to clean and polish sterling silver are not used by silver experts.
Heritage is one of the few large auction houses to hold dedicated auctions of Silver & Vertu (you can learn the definition of Vertu at a previous blog). These auctions can offer nearly 500 lots (and thousands of individual objects) every spring and fall. They continue to be among the silver hobby’s most-watched silver auctions all year long.
So how does an auction house handling thousands upon thousands of pieces of silver treat and polish each piece before it crosses the block? It does not submerge them in hot water with aluminum foil nor does it use toothpaste to remove years of dark tarnish.
The approach puts the condition of the piece as a top priority.
“We work gently wearing latex gloves,” said Karen Rigdon, the director for Decorative Arts & Design and Silver & Vertu.
Heritage employs a staff to polish its silver before every auction. The staff is supervised so that precious patina is preserved and dark tarnish is removed. Hitting a piece’s high points adds a luster that makes the metal a near-gleaming white without compromising its smooth finish or eye appeal.
This isn’t the case with solutions you find on non-silver websites. Some advice tells you to avoid cleaners and instead use solutions far too abrasive to both remove tarnish and prevent scratching the delicate metal. Submerging a piece in hot water with a piece of aluminum foil and baking soda can pit the silver, and after all that polishing, some acid-filled home remedies may only lighten the tarnish rather than remove it altogether.
Heritage Auctions uses two main products on silver: Haggarty Foaming Cleaner and Never Dull. “The foam does the work for you with minimal effort from the polisher which cuts down on over-rubbing,” Rigdon said. Good examples are this rare, 48-piece Tiffany & Co. William K Vanderbilt pattern flatware service valued at $20,000, and a pair of Paul Storr Sterling Silver-Gilt Wine Coolers, which retains all of the grandure and none of the damage hot water and aluminum foil would have left behind.
“Never Dull is a cotton wadding saturated with cleaner which is especially effective for cleaning pieces that also include other materials, such as wood, which should not be soaked in water,” Rigdon said.
The wadding is specially treated and safe for all metals and does not leave a residue on surfaces like some commercial cream polishes.
But what about those stubborn sterling silver pieces that are found yellowed or even sticky with age? The solution is a very common solution.
“When a piece has been lacquered, mineral spirits with cut through the yellowed surface,” Rigdon said.
My longtime friend and silver restorationist and conservationist Jeffrey Herman writes about silver preservation at his excellent website, hermansilver.com.
Keep his silver polishing tips in mind when seeking a way to polish your own collection:
- Hold a piece of white paper next to the object you’re working on. Any remaining tarnish will contrast with the white paper to show you if additional polishing is required.
- Hours of polishing and no progress on removing the tarnish? Your piece is more than likely coated with lacquer. The lacquer must be removed first before polishing is possible. This should be done by a professional metal conservator.
- Here’s a quick way to safely remove wax from candle holders.
Written by: Eric Bradley
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