60-Second Silver: Overcleaning silver removes patina

If you think you would like to collect silver flatware, you’ll want to reference Warman’s Sterling Silver Flatware, 2nd Edition, Value & Identification Guide by Phil Dreis.

I find it’s time to discuss a very troubling trend I’ve witnessed in silver displayed in museums: over cleaning.

Years ago, I visited a prominent northeastern museum housing a large and impressive silver collection. Major presentation and historically important American and European silver were on exhibit. I was on a museum tour at the time, explaining to the other silver aficionados in the group how some of the pieces were created. I became alarmed at what I had been viewing: silver objects stripped of every last bit of patina!

I soon asked the docent why the silver had been stripped, leaving it so white, so one-dimensional. She replied: “The museum wanted to display the silver the way it looked upon completion by the silversmith.” I pointed out the obvious purple-colored firestain that mottled many of the objects, and that it would not have left the silversmith’s workshop in that condition. That the smith would have “fired” their piece, then given it an acid bath to dissolve the copper from the surface of the sterling, leaving a fine silver finish.

Over decades of polishing, the oxidized copper (or firestain) may be revealed. Silversmiths, especially those practicing up through the 19th century and into the 20th, probably would have patinated an ornamental piece, giving it a more three-dimensional look. “That’s just the museum’s policy,” the docent said. I had the immediately urge to confront the museum director and curator of decorative arts, but that wasn’t the time.

Modern “taste,” fickle at best, has no place in museum conservation. And, I am not alone in thinking that museums over clean their silver. Recently, a spoon collectors club visited my workshop. Below is an excerpt from an e-mail I received from one of the collectors after the visit: “I am always distressed to see museum silver with all the patina carefully removed. New sterling is now even being sold looking as though it just had a bath in Tarn-X.”

Much time had passed from that eye-opening day at the museum visit to receiving that letter. It is a reminder of my responsibility to silversmiths long passed, to collectors unknowing of possible impending alterations to their bequests, and to museum decision makers entrusted with preserving our history. Museums are considered the authority of how our objects maintained. If ground-breaking or ill-conceived ideas are made without consulting others in the field (and that includes silversmiths themselves), irreversible mistakes will continue to be made without the public’s knowledge.

And if we consider a museum’s policy to be the last word, we will then accept those poor conservation techniques as our own. ?

Jeffrey Herman started Herman Silver Restoration & Conservation in 1984, and has repaired and reconstructed everything from historically important tankards, tea services, and tureens to disposal-damaged flatware. Herman has worked at Gorham as a designer, sample maker, and technical illustrator and at Pilz Ltd., where he learned the fine art of restoration. Herman has a BFA degree in silversmithing and is the founder of the Society of American Silversmiths.


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