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Art Conservation and Preservation Are Important Practices in the Brandywine Valley

Adobe Stock / DedMityay

Whether family heirlooms or rare items, your collectibles deserve proper care.

“Furniture glue dries out, surfaces get crusty. We also see a fair amount of fire and storm damage—and damages from pets.”

So says Scott Alexander, co-owner of New Life Furniture Systems in Wilmington. Since 1996, he and his brother-in-law, Robert Trent, have been helping clients take care of their vintage furniture by utilizing the three Rs: repair, reupholster and refinish. “Every other generation needs to attend to their furniture,” Alexander says. “About every 50 years, a piece of furniture will need repair. A lot of this damage occurs when people try to shove furniture across the room for cleaning or redecoration.”

Since colonial days, the Brandywine Valley has been a magnet for fine artists and craftspeople. Many of their creations still exist today in area museums and homes sometimes owned by families who’ve resided here for generations. In almost every family, someone is a collector—of antiques, family heirlooms, books, furniture, automobiles, and paintings and other works of art. Often, they don’t take time to store them properly or adequately restore them if they’re damaged. There’s also the question of restoration or modernization, especially when it comes to cars and furniture.

“About every 50 years, a piece of furniture will need repair. A lot of this damage occurs when people try to shove furniture across the room for cleaning or redecoration.”
—New Life Furniture Systems’ Scott Alexander

Our region has fostered a cadre of specialists like Alexander and Trent. At the institutional level, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is well known for its resident experts and educational offerings, including a longstanding master’s degree program with the University of Delaware. The former home of Henry Francis du Pont, Winterthur was opened to the public in 1951. Today its unparalleled collection includes nearly 90,000 objects made (or used) in America since 1640, all displayed or stored in the 175-room mansion.

The program in art conservation offers free advice at clinics five times a year. “People can bring up to three objects of a type—paintings, textiles, furniture—for a 30-minute appointment and can arrange for multiple appointments,” says Winterthur spokesperson Jason Brudereck.

Adobe Stock / DedMityay

At the clinics, collectors can get advice on how to care for their objects, although no valuations are given. Visitors can also sign up for hour-long tours of the museum’s three conservation labs. Caring for Your Cherished Objects: The Winterthur Guide provides practical information on how to prolong the life of vintage items. The book is on sale in the museum shop.

Many vintage collectibles are enjoyed on a continuing basis—even vintage automobiles. “I never cease to be amazed by the reaction some people have to the mechanical capabilities of antique automobiles, as if they’re archaic, delicate machines capable of being driven only short distances—and even then, only very carefully,” wrote David Schultz a dozen years ago in Hemmings Classic Car. “In reality, most of the classics were overbuilt machines. A friend of mine just began restoring his first classic and was taken aback by the quality of design and construction of the massive automobile. So why do people think these cars can’t be driven?”

The same is true of furniture. “Half our business is reupholstering,” says Alexander, who has a staff of 10 in his shop. “Right now, we’re painting a lot of wooden furniture. In the 1990s, people were taking the paint off for the original wood. Now we’re putting it back on again—lots of blues and grays. People like to reinvent pieces.”

When it comes to routine maintenance, Alexander warns of overdoing it. “Generally, we don’t recommend lots of furniture oils and waxes,” he says. “A soft, damp cloth with soapy water is all you need—and then maybe just a touch of polish.”

Applied with proper TLC, of course.

Visit winterthur.org.