The power of polish: How a million pounds of history was wiped away

Posted on Tuesday 30 July 2019
In 2006 a Chinese vase was sold at auction for £92,000; it could have fetched more than £1million had it been in perfect condition.

The 200-year-old vase described as "a lost treasure of the Qing dynasty”, was given to a cleaning woman as a retirement present in 1940.  She cherished the gift, but unfortunately, she polished it so much that she rubbed off most of the gold enamel.

Sometimes less is more, particularly when it comes to caring for historic objects.  Many of us wouldn’t question using our domestic cleaning products to clean the interior of churches, but not only could we be doing more harm than good, we might actually be cleaning far more than we need to.  Popular brass polishes, for instance, contain ammonia which can damage metal, while many spray polishes contain silicone which can actually trap dirt rather than remove it.  And if your heart falls at the thought of having to polish all your pews regularly, you might be glad to hear that you only need to wax them every 2-5 years, and then just buff those used regularly when and if they need it.

Of course, a lack of cleaning can cause problems too.  Dust and dirt can build up and attract moisture and insects, it can also be compacted into layers and harden causing dust cementation (often appears dark or grey to the eye] which is very difficult to remove.  This is a particular problem in carvings, grooves and creases.

Changing practices and attitudes can take time, but with an understanding of the basic principles you can aim for an ideal and do the best you can in the meantime.  Simple changes like avoiding using domestic cleaning products and replacing yellow dusters for plain micro-fibres ones can make a big difference.

If you would like to find out more about Conservation Cleaning, you can book a place on our FREE workshop at Outwell on September 10th.  Click here for details.  Tips and information will be available on the Diocese of Ely’s website later this year, in the meantime you can find advice and guidance in the Church Care section of the Church of England’s website:

And remember to keep it simple, sometimes to “just dust” is all that’s needed.

The Chinese vase article can be found here: