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To Clean or Not to Clean - That is the Question

Updated: May 19, 2023

Should you clean, polish or repair your museum or rare quality silver?

The answer is that it depends on the specific piece and circumstance.

Tiffany Exposition Sterling Silver Salver or Dessert Plate was displayed at both the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France in 1900 and also displayed in The Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY in 1901.


Should this item be cleaned, polished or restored?

Answer is absolutely not.

The brilliant greens, blues and reds of the patina on this piece are the most spectacular we've ever seen on a piece of silver. If the item were polished, then these unusual colorations would be likely gone forever. It is possible after being polished, that over another few years or decades that a similar color pattern could return, but why take that chance? This piece should never be touched again other than with white gloves and handled inside of a museum.



Comstock Lode Silver Tea Pot made by Tiffany & Company - A John C. Moore & Son Silver Teapot Made with Silver from the Comstock Lode for Tiffany & Co., New York City, circa 1865


Should this item be cleaned, polished or restored?

The Answer was yes.

We purchased this item at Heritage Auctions in year 2019. The condition report listed out various dents as well as a very ugly name inscription that desecrated the main body. The provenance of the original owner was of no historical significance to history and their personalization emblazoned onto the very front of the item in big block style letters was a complete distraction to the piece and of its historical nature from being made from silver of the Comstock Load.

Since the item did not present very well aesthetically, we sent it to Replacements Silver Restorations https://www.replacements.com/silver-repair and had the the light name inscription expertly removed and had all the dents and repairs made to make this like new. We effectively restored the item to its original condition state that it once had upon its initial release at the time it was first manufactured by Tiffany.


Another owner of this piece, may have chosen to have left the piece as is. Some purist collectors would even say that we defiled the piece by undertaking such a major restoration update. However, we made the judgment call that the ugly personalization probably done by an outside jeweler and not Tiffany was not complimentary and nor becoming to the item and did not lend itself to its original mint state and the story of the piece. In our expert opinion, a reset to zero was called for and the restoration was needed. In the end, it is up to each individual owner of an item on how to proceed forward with any alterations, repairs or restorations. It is definitely a subjective art to make these kinds of decisions and there is not any one size fits all kind of formula on such matters.


I will also say from a retail perspective, when I ran The Silver Queen Inc. from 1990 to 2021, that if we received a beautiful silver item in the store and didn't refurbish it to like new, it would sit around on the store shelves forever. People and retail customers typically don't want to pay good money for beat up items and also they don't like items that are personalized with other people's initials or inscriptions. Even it it is a museum quality piece, most retail customers still want something that presents well in their home and looks beautiful. There is obviously a balance between measuring what high end millionaire/billionaire VIP customers want and also what purist collectors want, because the two don't always go hand in hand. As a retailer, you might hold off on a silver restoration on a piece to placate and appease collectors, but then you lose out on selling that same item to a VIP novice rich person that just wants a pretty decorative item for their home and doesn't want a piece that isn't shiny and doesn't looks like brand new.


Paul Revere Sterling Silver Demitasse Coffee Spoon


Should this item be cleaned, polished or restored?

The Answer is no.

This demitasse spoon has some slight unevenness to the rim and also a full name inscription on it. Under normal circumstances for a more generic inexpensive piece, we would certainly consider having the piece polished, repaired and possibly having the name personalization removed prior to putting it up for resale or for display in our Silver Museum. However, a piece like this that is so ultra ultra rare and that has so much historical significance is one that should be absolutely be left undisturbed.


In our previous example, of the Tiffany Comstock Load Tea Pot, the market value of this piece was $150-$200 per troy ounce. However, the market value of this Paul Revere Spoon is $45,000 per ounce. The basic rule of thumb is that the greater the value of the item per troy ounce, the more likely that it will be considered a collector's or museum grade item. Collectors don't want these super valuable items touched in anyway.

Here is a chart that illustrates making restoration prescribed decisions based on market values:

  • Silver Items worth $80 or less per troy ounce - 100% of items eligible for restoration. - Anything goes, polish, remove monograms, restore, fix dents - have at it. You are completely safe to do so as it will not detract from collectors value since most collectors are looking to collect items worth far more per troy ounce.

  • Silver items worth $80- $150 per troy ounce - 50% of items restored and 50% left untouched. This category often has an overlap where there are collectors who want some of these items in this price range, but then there are also some millionaire/billionaire VIP customers would like to buy these as well as decorative objects of virtu for their mansions. This category is the gray area. If you polish and restore an item then you potentially alienate a purist collector. However, if you don't polish and restore then you lose the VIP buyer who wants a pretty shiny like new object for their home. You just need to evaluate each item piece by piece in this category price range and make your own judgment calls on how to proceed.

  • Silver items worth $150-$300 per troy ounce - Most (as in 75%) are probably not going to be be restored and be left untouched. At this high a rate per ounce it's mostly high end collectors or museum curators buying pieces this expensive. They want them unhandled.

  • Silver items worth $300-$500 per troy ounce or higher - 99% of items virtually untouched unless something easy like a minor seamless repair. Definitely no major buffing or monogram removals on items this expensive.

  • Silver items worth $500 per troy ounce or higher - 100% of items - Don't touch. Only the elite of the elite collectors are in this category and they treat items in this echelon like numismatic coins and don't want anything touched at all.

There are always exceptions to the rules, but this guide should hold true for most items.


Are collectible silver items like coins - where cleaning them ruins their value?

The answer is no. Most rare silverware and hollowware can be cleaned or and still retain its value.

Some collectors out there would argue that no silverware should ever be cleaned or restored. However, we at The Silver Museum would strongly argue that in other major collectible genres like car collecting, musical instruments collecting, rare documents collecting, watch collecting and collecting rare art, that in these fields, it is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged for an art conservator to come in and restore a piece to like new. We have watched Antiques Roads Show for years and have seen hundreds of times where the TV expert told the owner that if they had an item repaired cleaned or restored that it would increase the value of the item for more than what they spent on the repair. We firmly believe this to be the case also with many items of collectible silverware and hollowware.

If the item is in a complete state of disrepair, then most of the time, it is money well spent to restore or polish it to like new. Most silverware items are not like numismatic coins that are die struck and then have flow lines with original patina that will be forever destroyed after being polished or cleaned. As a matter of fact, when silverware or hollowware is manufactured fresh off the assembly line, one of the last steps at the factory is polishing. So, even if a silverware item was die struck initially, all of that originality thereafter is changed by the final polishing stage at the plant or work shop. If the item is polished again by the owner of the piece or by other subsequent owners (and not over polished) , the procedure is merely not much different than the same process that the original manufacturer used to finish it for resale originally.


Bottom line, you can typically polish your higher end silverware or hollowware items and not have it ruin the value. See chart in previous section for exceptions.


The photo below shows all the different steps taken to manufacture a piece of silverware. Please look at the very last steps that say, "Sand polish the handle" and "Polish Entire Spoon." These last steps are not ones that are used in minting coins, which is why we strongly believe that rare flatware and hollowware should not be treated with the same grading standards like how numismatics are evaluated and that some purist silverware collectors are advocating.



What silver items should not be cleaned, altered, polished or restored?

Here is a short list of exceptions that should be left untouched or barely touched:

  • Souvenir Spoons - these are considered more like coins and the crisper the details of the engraving and handwork, the better the value will be.

  • Gorham Martele or Arts and Crafts movement piece that are hand made - Don't rub these too much as the hand detailing can easily be destroyed or diminished.

  • Georg Jensen Hand Hammered Items - Don't over do polishing on these and you virtually never want to use anything heavy duty to polish these pieces.

  • Amazing Patina Items - if there is an amazing discoloration that is complimentary then don't touch it.

  • Matte Finished or Flat Finished Items - If the item was manufactured purposely with a non-shiny surface then use only a gentle soap and water to clean off residual dirty.

  • Mixed Metals Items - Don't touch or barely touch these. Collectors want them original. Use nothing to clean that leaves any signs of abrasion.

  • Items worth $300 more per troy ounce - If silver items are this valuable, then don't touch is a good rule of thumb.

Is is okay to machine buff rare silverware items?

In general the answer is be very careful! If a machine buffing process is used on a rare item and it is detectible, as in there are a pattern of buffing wheel lines all over it, then it could potentially lower the value substantially. Only use a trusted silversmith or restoration company with decades of experience when attempting to machine an item with rare value. You don't want your rare silver botched, otherwise it may become only worth scrap metal value.


We have had items like this machine buffed and items like this just only hand polished. It can be hit and miss, but if you use an expert who knows what they are doing with a machine buffing wheel, the results of the outcome of a machine buffing can often far surpass those outcomes of just having an item hand polished. Machine buffing is what is done at the manufacturer when the item comes off the assembly line. To have that same look again as the piece did on day one of its existence can definitely be a pretty dramatic restoration transformation. It all depends on the piece of course and you should always let a an expert silversmith or restoration expert help you make that decision whether or not to hand polish or machine polish, if even polishing or restoring at all.

Is it okay to remove a monogram on a rare museum piece? The answer is typically no. Usually a monogram removal leaves a dip in the silver and is ugly and detectable. Although monograms in general tend to lower the value of an item, monogram removals are usually worth even less. Collectors do not want monogram removed items, unless it is a 100% perfect job that it not detectable in anyway to the human eye. Proceed with caution on any monogram or inscription removals.

Columbian Exposition Tiffany Sterling Bon Bon Server

The above item has a huge script monogram. If an attempt were made to remove this, it would destroy the value by almost 75%. It would leave a huge dip and the gilt portion would be ruined.


Most of the time, you don't want to remove monograms as it is usually 99% of the time detectable. This Chantilly by Gorham Asparagus Server has a very curved surface and any flattening of this by removing an initial would likely be very noticeable, especially to an expert.


Am I obligated to disclose that I had a repair performed on an item of silver? This is a question of debate in the industry. Almost 100% of the time, a repair or monogram removal is detectable by an expert. However, there are times where the restoration was so successful that the next owner of the item would never be able to tell the difference. Disclosing that there was repair is probably not a bad idea and probably the right thing to do. However, it is not always necessarily an obligation, especially if the repair was a very minor one or something very inconsequential to the value as in having no effect on it either way. In example, if a fork tine was bent and is now straightened - does it really matter if the next owner knows about this? Or if there was a small dent in a coffee pot and it is no longer there and now in perfect condition, does it really matter if the next owner has full knowledge about this previous problem? I think there are sometimes where disclosure would be a good idea, but on others it's almost a question of why go to all the extra effort if it is a non starter? If the defect was permanently fixed without a trace and there is no possibility of it ever coming back due to some defect or weakness, then ethically, I think you are good to go for most minor repairs and alterations, especially on items that are valued at $100 per troy ounce or less.

Final Note:

Make smart choices when doing any repairs, monogram removals or major restoration projects.

Over time, you will know how to proceed better based on past experiences.



Thanks for reading our article.

Please leave questions or comments below. All are greatly welcomed!



We Buy! We want to purchase silver pieces like the ones shown above! If you have items that you'd like to sell, or even just want to get an idea on valuation

please click the email us button for a quote.


Please send us photos, measurements and item descriptions. Thanks, Greg Arbutine

Silver Museum Owner

Article Written by Greg Arbutine in May of 2023


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訪客
2023年5月07日
評等為 5(最高為 5 顆星)。

This is an extraordinary article and was most helpful.

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訪客
2023年5月04日
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Very interesting article.

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