5 Environmental Factors that Undermine the Condition of Artwork & Furniture

by Morgan Cobb

Whether you collect fine art, vintage toys, English furniture or firearms, you cannot understate the impact of condition on the value of tangible objects.  In some cases, objects in excellent condition are valued at a 25-30% premium as compared to similar objects in fair condition, whereas an object in poor condition may be discounted 40-60% in value as compared to other objects similar in likeness, kind, and quality.  Assessing the current physical state of the object is a challenging, but necessary, component of the appraisal process.

Navigating the notions of what constitutes good or bad condition is complex and full of nuances.  Each category of collectible personal property is evaluated based on condition criteria specific to that particular type of object.  For instance, compare two mahogany chests from the 18th century of similar size, style, type, and craftsmanship.  Each chest endured more than 200 years of daily use.  As you would expect, the surfaces showed wear and some scratches.  One of these chests was refinished, and the scratches and surface wear that were once part of that history were erased in exchange for an even and consistent finish.  In the American market, collectors would consider refinishing this piece a negative aspect of the condition, and the chest that had not been refinished would be preferred.  In the English market the refinished chest would be appreciated more and this aspect of the chest's condition would be valued and embraced.  This example illustrates one of the myriad instances where preferences and expectations of condition are highly specific to a collecting genre.

Less specific, however, are the environmental factors that can impact many object types.   From still banks to oil paintings, militaria to Barbie Dolls, nearly every type of collectible personal property can suffer from degradation, corrosion, or deterioration caused by these five environmental factors. 

5 Environmental Factors that can Impact the Condition of Artwork, Furniture and Collectibles

1.  Humidity

Relative humidity is a measurement of the quantity of moisture in the air as compared to the maximum amount of moisture possible at a given temperature; as the temperature increases, air can hold more moisture.  When air is damp, organic materials such as paper can begin to decompose.  High humidity is also associated with accelerated mold growth rates.  Mold can grow on nearly any substrate and is very difficult, if not impossible, to control without the services of professional conservators.  Humidity should be maintained at a 40-50% level.

2.  Pollution

Air pollution materializes as surface accretions such as particulate matter, sometimes containing an oily or sticky component that adheres to the surface and promotes adhesion of more matter. Pollution particles can act as abrasives and damage the surface of an object.  If you live in a polluted city, consider air filters that remove particulate matter from the spaces that contain your valuables.   

3.  Sunlight

Photodegradation is the term that refers to the breakdown of a material due to excessive exposure to sunlight.  Overexposed objects fade over time, often without the owner noticing until the damage is irreversible.  Photography is particularly susceptible.  Take care to remove all valuable objects out of direct sunlight or harsh lighting.  Frame and mount important objects using conservation grade glass and plexiglas to block UV rays from bleaching the object.

4.  Water

Water damage can include loosening, staining, distortion or damage to the finish of an object.  Avoid placing sensitive items such as works on paper and photography in rooms with close proximity to major water sources, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms.  

5.  Use

Everyday use takes its toll on objects with significant age.  Wear patterns may develop, such as traffic patterns on oriental rugs.  If you find that you are consistently using a certain object, consider rotating or rearranging your space to relieve frequently used objects from contact and interaction.

Though some wear and tear is unavoidable, moderating these five environmental factors can add to the longevity of your most precious objects. By enjoying your art, furniture, and other collectibles in a space with regulated moisture and pollution with limited access to water, indirect sunlight and thoughtfully minimized use of objects, you can preserve the physical integrity and value of your personal property.