Condition Factors That Make or Break Antiques

What to Look For, and What to Avoid, in Collectibles

Most condition "issues" found in antiques and collectibles aren't viewed as good. Things like cracks and chips most often devalue old objects and make them far less desirable.

Other issues like verdigris may or may not be harmful depending on the piece. The one exception in almost all instances is patina, a term that can be confusing to new collectors. 

Read more about patina, which is generally a good thing, along with a few other condition concerns that should be carefully considered when buying antiques and disclosed when selling them.

  • 01 of 04

    What is Patina?

    Fairy Phonolamp Tabletop Lamp and Phonograph
    Fairy Phonolamp Tabletop Lamp and Phonograph with Patina on the Painted Bronze-like Metal. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

    Patina is the good guy when it comes to condition "issues." It is defined as: the surface appearance of something grown beautiful, especially with age or use, which adds value to an antique or collectible. A simpler way to understand patina is remembering that in addition to normal signs of aging, it's the stuff that is removed when an antique is deeply cleaned. That's not usually a great idea.

    However, sometimes you simply have to remove dirt from the surface of an antique or collectible. Take grime that may build up on glass that has been stored in a barn, for instance, or extreme tarnish on a piece of sterling silver flatware. Or, maybe you need to clean a rusty cast iron skillet before using it in your kitchen. Cleaning is quite reasonable and makes an item more desirable in the majority of these cases.

    The trouble begins when you clean a piece excessively if that is not seen as advantageous. This often pertains to metals such as copper or bronze that might have green film known as verdigris (as explained below), and with silver that has tarnished over time. Light polishing may be okay, but making a piece look brand new is usually frowned upon by collectors. Polishing with a soft cloth removes just enough of the tarnish to make pieces beautiful without completely destroying the patina. If you need to tackle a tough job, use an appropriate metal polish but never use dip cleaners that completely strip all the valuable patina that has built up over time in cracks and crevices.

    With furniture, patina refers to the darkening and aging of an original finish. Again, light surface dusting and cleaning might be acceptable, but completely removing signs of age in a period piece is very detrimental to the value. This is true for refinishing as well. Proceed with caution if you feel like you may have a special piece or if you're just not sure. Seek the advice of a professional if needed.

  • 02 of 04

    Verdigris on Metal Antiques

    Copper Tea Kettle Showing Verdigris in Crevices
    Copper Tea Kettle Showing Verdigris in Crevices. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

    Verdigris, what some people refer to as green "gunk" on antiques, is a natural form of patina (explained above) that accumulates over time on copper, bronze, and brass as it is exposed to air. In addition to varying shades of green, it may also be bluish green in color. It can also be induced using acids, and sometimes is artificially applied to new items made of these metals, especially copper, to give them a rich, aged look.

    It depends on the type of antique or collectible whether verdigris is considered to be harmful to the piece. For instance, when verdigris forms on brass wire used to hold vintage jewelry components in place, this is considered to be detrimental to the piece.

    Other antiques, take a bronze statue as an example, would not be considered damaged if a light amount of verdigris is present. Since this is considered to be patina on many antiques, it can actually preserve the value of rare pieces to leave them as is.

    So, should you ever clean verdigris? Again, this depends on the type of antique or collectible you are evaluating. Carefully cleaning verdigris from vintage jewelry is preferable. Left unchecked, it will continue to eat away at delicate wiring and findings causing components to be lost and it may alter the color of affected metals irreparably.

    Since verdigris on other metal objects with some age on them could be viewed as patina possibly adding value depending on the rarity of the item, it is best to thoroughly research the impact cleaning will have on each type of metal antique or collectible before tackling those projects. Consult with an expert on the type of antique in question if you are not sure whether to clean verdigris from an antique.

  • 03 of 04

    Foxing on Paper Collectibles

    Print titled "Union" exhibiting foxing in several areas
    Old print titled "Union" exhibiting foxing in several areas. - Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

    Foxing is a very common condition issue affecting old books, art prints and all types ephemera. It consists of brown spotting caused by exposure to high humidity, extreme temperatures and/or the aging of inks originally used in processing.

    While antique and collectible items are most desirable with no foxing present, slight cases may be acceptable in some instances and lowers values only slightly. This is especially true with extremely rare documents or books. Most often, however, it does significantly diminish the value of items excessively afflicted. 

  • 04 of 04

    Sick Glassware

    Early American Pattern Glass Goblets
    Early American Pattern Glass Goblets NOT Damaged by Sickness. Catisfaction's Glass Gallery on

    Sickness is a term used by dealers and collectors to describe cloudy glass permanently etched by the abrasive detergents used in automatic dishwashers. You will commonly hear it referred to as “sick” glass. This is one type of condition that should be avoided in all instances.

    This damage should not be confused with water rings seen in old vases and other vessels as evidence of evaporation. Water rings can often be removed, but the luster can never be restored in a piece of sick glassware.

    To check glass for sickness as opposed to plain old dirt, moisten your fingertip or a tissue and swipe it across the surface of the item in question. If the cloudiness reappears as the area dries, then you will know the piece of glass cannot be saved. If it is obvious that the cloudiness is just dirt, give the item a chance if the price is right.

    To avoid infecting antique and collectible glassware with irreversible etching like this, always take the time to wash it carefully by hand.