By Steven P. Pody, Master collector (refinisher and restorer) of more than 950 Nouveau Jewel Boxes. He co-authored the Collectors Journal article, “Nouveau Jewelry Boxes Portray Spring Floral Fantasies” with Joanne Wiertella. He is also Author of the The Panoptikon: An Adventure of Poetic Thought….
Art Nouveau Metal Boxes and Caskets
A Short Repair and Restoration Guide
This guide is intended to address reparation and restoration of metal-ware containers of the Art Nouveau period (American and European), to include jewelry, trinket, dresser, ring, glove, watch, string, hair receiver, stamp and other box or casket-type containers. Also relevant are Art Nouveau cut or molded glass jars/containers with embellished metal tops.
There are two general types of composition/construction in boxes to bear in mind, and these center on place of origin. Choices are either America or Europe/South America. Metallic structure and surface coatings are often very different and distinct for the two groups. Issues for these types will be covered in the text to follow.
Tools for the serious repair artist: One set of dental tools (picks, mirror). These are usually of steel. Plastic is also useful. One set of small pottery shaping tools. These are usually made of wood and are good for delicate, non-scratching work. One set (two tubes) of six-minute drying epoxy. Small needle-nosed plyers. Soldering iron and silver solder. Toothbrush. Small model-style paintbrush. Tubes of Rub-N-Buff paint (Gold Leaf, Antique Gold, European Gold). One small bottle of silver paint (Brush-N-Leaf). A small selection of wire of varying thickness, including a wire coat hanger. A set of micro-files. Felt chamois (shammy) polishing cloth. Triple-size cotton balls. A small can of 3-In-One oil. Bottle of scentless nail polish remover (100% acetone). Bottle of tarnish remover (silver/copper/bronze). Metal saw and lengths of small copper hinge tubing (eBay or hobby store). Bluettes (chemical resistant gloves). Windex, for the cut or molded glass beneath those metal-topped items.
The theory of repair rests on one of two desired outcomes: To restore the work as a testament to its artistic styling, or to do so with a mind to contemporary container usage.
No matter what country the item is from, there are basic structural elements common to all which, over time, may need addressing - cracks, holes, broken hinges and legs, etc... These acquired faults, due to some fated 'oops' or to original weakness of design, materials or structure, need to be attended to before any work is done on aesthetic/visual elements. In short, Priority One is that the item must be strengthened before it is manhandled for other purposes.
Pinholes. Light is your friend. Open the item, supporting the lid at all times (if attached). Remove interior fabric lining (easier on American pieces). Check with a bright light in the background for any pinholes or cracks. Cracks, usually on the rim, and usually around the hinge, are generally visible already. Caution: Cleaning the box surface before this step and the strengthening to follow, could easily lead to breaking through and severely damaging the item.
If the fabric survives (For American and for German souvenir boxes, usually silk with a boarder cord, or for other European items, tiny upholstery-like buttons), use a wooden pick or tongue depressor to push top and bottom fabrics (and their cardboard scaffolding) from the edge to the center. Thus folded it is easier to clear the edges and gently nudge out the linings without damage. Occasionally there is cotton glued to the inner surface. This is not a presentation item and may be ripped out and patted back into the underside of the recovered lining later. The lining is usually silk. Spelter items will have a metal inner lip, and silver plate not, so the maneuver will be slightly different in clearing the inner edge.
With fabric safely laid aside, the item is now free to be cleaned by various methods. Hold the item up to the light and see what needs shoring up. Mix epoxy and daub the inside pinholes with it. For larger holes use tape on the outside to support the epoxy. Once dry, the tape may be removed--and the hole is credibly filled. The cool thing about epoxy is that for a few minutes it is a flexible filler -- meaning that with the quick use of a pick or other tool, the outer surface may be shaped to approximately mimic the outer pattern of the original design in metal. Dry epoxy takes on paint well (if you have a paint to match the outer surface) and the results can be excellent. I often paint over the epoxy of these interior repairs with silver or gold, which otherwise would be an inappropriate glossy black.
Cracks. The wonderful thing about American jewelry boxes (and some European) is that the body and lid contain a curled-around inner lip. If a box has a crack or cracks, cut a piece of wire that will fit inside this lip -- especially cracks around load-bearing areas, like the hinge. For larger boxes, coat hanger wire often does very nicely, and can be shaped to fit around corners. Fill the lip with epoxy on both sides of the crack, and then insert the wire, embedding it as deeply in the mixture as a pick may push. The box may have to be upside-down, or the crack is so large that it must be physically pushed together until the epoxy dries (6-10 minutes). Be flexible and do whatever it takes to get the job done! For smaller boxes it is possible to use clamps or rubber bands to pressure cracks closed as you repair them. If one lets a puddle of epoxy dry a little, until it has a bit of pastiness to it, it may be additionally used as a filler in the wider cracks that have already been internally repaired and strengthened. This is cosmetic, and may be painted later, but in any case is better looking than a spacious crack. Just before it completely dries, excess epoxy may be removed with a non-scratch pick or fingernail, and flattened out on the surface. After drying, if on the outer surface, the material may be filed smooth.
Hinges. Tough call. Let's start simply. If someone has used a bobby-pin or mis-sized wire so that there is unsightly exposure, or the lid rattles, pull this out and replace with an appropriate size (diameter and length) of wire. If the current wire is rusted or so large that a hinge can't move, apply 3-In-One oil to penetrate the area a bit, and then tap out the wire (patiently and carefully) with a hammer and nail, and then replace the wire.
If the problem is a missing tube section from the body or lid of a multi-part hinge, it is relatively easy to size the copper tube replacement part and epoxy it into place (to be painted later). If the lid is ripped from the body, one may replace missing tubes, but the catch is how to attach them, en masse? For load-bearing, the hinge is way more complicated than repairing broken legs. Spelter (an alloy of which zinc is the main constituent 1815), the primary composition of the basic box and lid, being a reminiscent of pewter, is a relatively soft metal - and the primary reason the hinge probably broke to begin with. It is a good time to practice your soldering skills, using the micro-files to shape the excess. Unfortunately, many hinges and box surfaces do not adhere to solder. At this point it is time to either become a master micro-welder (without utterly destroying your piece from the very high temperatures), or take the piece to a jeweler to make the repair. If the box is for display of the artistic form, and not for actual use, restoration may be completed and display may be accomplished with an unattached lid resting upon the body. Maybe you'll get to it later...
Rocking boxes. Some box metals don't like the way they were molded, and they crack with stress as they warp. The crack may be fixed easily enough, but perhaps the box now rocks. If this is something you feel that you can't ignore, there are two options. Option One: Put a single-side stick-surface felt pad under one of the short legs. Option Two: As spelter is a very soft metal, without damaging a single visual aspect (the bottoms of the feet are often bare metal anyway), only a few strokes of a metal file under a supporting foot should suffice for the needed adjustments. Paint afterwards, if you wish.
Other 3-D broken parts. Good news! Spelter gives a very solid bond with epoxy (and the harder to juggle Super-Glue). If a leg is broken off, and all parts are present, the repair may not only be made, but will be strong enough to fulfill the original function of supporting the box. Broken decoration (flowers, leaves, wings, etc.) are also easy to similarly repair. Remember to trim extra epoxy before it completely dries, or file it off after it does.
Now that the item has been strengthened and is structurally sound, with holes and cracks filled, and broken parts remounted, it is time to address the presentable (outer) surface. This is, technically, a final phase of repair, and is a very personal call. Is the item to be the best possible surface of what exists, or to more closely resemble the actual item as issued, or to represent some modern expression of the owner?
Leaving out the people who paint the flowers, or who prefer loud colors to adorn their expressions of contemporary taste, there are six original surfaces to an American Art Nouveau spelter box/casket: Gold plate, gold paint, silver plate, copper plate, and ivory (white) and green enamel paint. The green enamel is found on a limited-series customized run of five models sold by Marshall Field department stores -- based out of Chicago. Additionally, as regards Europe -- German Jugenstil souvenir boxes, possibly constructed of a tin base, may be coated with a silver wash. Some French and English boxes may differ on the upper end, and not be spelter (or tin) at all, but brass or bronze. Upper, upper European and South American end may be solid silver.
American Boxes. These fall into two categories -- Victorian Nouveau and Mature Art Nouveau. Victorian boxes are always silver-plated, including the quadruple-plate silver company output. Typically these items have plain bodies and ornate lids, but detailed bodies are not infrequent. These items, unlike their spelter successors, do not crack, and the hinges are intact, but they can abound in pinholes due to the thin nature of the pressed skin. Mature-style American boxes (later, fully embellished spelter items) are covered, top to bottom, and often underneath, with detail and design. Those heavy spelter lids are a real strain on hinges, ...and the molding process often incorporates stresses that eventually gives, and the body cracks and/or rocks on uneven legs.
Addressed here, for both styles, are options to work on the presentation surface. What follows is a quick run-down of restoration efforts.
Instructions for both American silver plate and spelter (fabric is already removed).
Assess the surface. Is there tarnish in the silver? Is there ancient silver polish caked into crevices and depressions? Does the spelter piece not shine with an original surface due to over-painting - perhaps in numerous coats of both paint and lacquer? Those crevices again... are they caked with years of dust, or old cosmetic residue, like face-power? How does the surface feel in your hands? Greasy? Sticky? Sometimes there is green gunk present, or black inkwell spills. Is the surface somewhat brownish from decades of nicotine?
A preliminary response is a good tooth-brushing (on the now underside-reinforced surface) with tepid water. This will address much of the dust, old silver polish and face-powder. Gently brush the design clear of debris, and you will be amazed at how bold the design becomes now that the elements are not muted. Dry the piece.
Work on silver plate is mostly a two- or three-step, rather simple process. 1) Water cleaning. 2) Nail polish (acetone) removal of finger/cosmetic grease and nicotine. Tarnish removal. Buff. Done. For silver, if not black and unrecoverable, a tarnish remover to restore as much of the original silver color as possible could work wonders.
Spelter can be much more complex, but also being a harder restoration is more satisfying when an unloved piece is once again returned to a glowing and proudly displayed beauty.
If the item is down to the original surface (either perfect, or with worn plate (copper, gold or silver), and it has a dirty surface, go through the following steps:
1) Tooth-brushing under running tepid water (dust, face powder, polish powder - which could foam up, even after all these years).
2) Cotton ball swabbing with nail polish remover (grease from fingers and cosmetics, and nicotine).
3) Check crevices/depressions and work loose still caked material. Repeat steps 1 & 2.
4) If all is clean, polish with a polishing cloth, and the fun is done.
Green gunk. Probably a decayed form of cosmetic, though for copper items it could be, in part, a form of corrosion. Fingernails are handy things. Nail polish remover on a cotton ball and the ball rubbed into the crevice with a fingernail, or a wood pick pushing a segment of wet cotton ball (but the pressure applied is harder to gauge). Green gunk is entirely removable. Patience.
Black corrosion spots. Usually copper corrosion, sometimes coming from the copper plate under gold. (Construction note: Gold spelter boxes are lead-gray spelter molds covered in copper plate and then covered by gold paint [lead-based] or plate. As the gold wears, the copper can, very fetchingly, give an added warmth to the attractive surface.) These dark spots cannot be totally removed. Where the surface is rough, a gently applied steel or wooden pick can remove the roughness and restore some reflective capacity. Then rub with nail-polish cotton until at least you've achieved maximum fade possible of the spot.
Worse than black spots are black patches. This is usually carbon black residue from inkwell ink, and is inert to any attempts to remove it, short of nail polish cotton friction or steel pick scraping, which only reduces some of the thinner-affected periphery areas.
Over-painting. One hundred-plus years is a long time. When I first started collecting, I was still acquiring pieces from the estates of the original owners. Now, some generations have intervened, and some of those individuals preferred gold over silver, or silver over gold, or didn't like the non-uniform nature of surface wear, or wanted to cover up blemishes-- like cracks, for better resale. One may suspect, but who knows the motivations that muted the beautiful original detail, and sometimes color? ...Perhaps in multiple iterations!
Which brings us to controversy. The following technique is never-fail for an American spelter box (this doesn't work on European/South American material), and is brought to the modern collector courtesy of that original dense and non-reactive lead-based paint of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is time to use hardware store spray-can (or brush on) paint remover. (Wow, sounds harsh!) Amazingly enough (and it took me awhile to be brave enough and find a box bad off enough to entertain the issue) this response works wonders. Have running water handy, and wear Bluettes -- chemical non-reactive gloves. Spray the affected over-painted area (it will almost always be the entire item) and wait ten minutes or so. Then, brushing away from you, use a toothbrush and start to remove what will come off on this first application. Keep rinsing the toothbrush and your gloves so you don't re-contaminate the item you are trying to clean. Once all surfaces are done, rinse the whole thing. I don't rinse the box itself earlier because sometimes the cold of the water can fix the cleaning process at that unfinished stage. Paint remover will have to be reapplied, where before it might have finished in one go. I have done entire boxes with one application. However, chances are the application process will be multiple/successive efforts, with smooth surfaces, and then cracks, indentations and crevices, eventually coming clean down to an original surface.
Apply, brush, rinse, apply, brush, rinse... I wasn't kidding about color change, ...and it can be surprising when one cleans a gold box, and all of a sudden it is silver, or the other way around. Sometimes the gold will come off and there will be bright silver plate underneath, protected from air all these years, and shining like new. Sometimes an item will be revealed in almost newly manufactured form, leaving you to wonder why the heck someone bothered to cover it up. Sometimes you have to be prepared to accept a worn surface for what it is - maybe some gold surface worn off and copper showing through, or some-such. But no matter what the outcome, two things are guaranteed. The original and reflective surface will be revealed, with all intended and designed angled facets shining, ...and all of the design will be restored to its bold and beautiful fullness - hair, leaves, flowers... Many a time I've encountered cleaned details that I didn't even know existed. Multiple paint layers filled them in and over time they disappeared from perception and appreciation.
At this point, after the removal of paint, one goes through the previously cited steps of cleaning with water and nail polish remover. Not only was detail covered up, but often the original dirt, grease, cosmetics, nicotine and cleaning polish (lying in wait to foam up!). Reveal the item, clean the item, polish the item. You will witness with amazement your box/casket revealed as closely as possible to the original intent of the Art Nouveau designer.
Note: European items cannot go through a paint removal stage. For one thing, for spelter/pewter items, there is generally no intervening copper layer. Most later-applied paint cannot be removed at all, and if it can, one is left with a porous and ugly gray and naked metal surface - which will then have to be tolerated, or repainted or plated. Cleaning European spelter items is limited to debris removal through the use of water and nail polish remover via toothbrush and cotton ball.
Americans became great mass producers of Art Nouveau containers, and many silver-plate and spelter examples exist. For Europe, the most produced Art Nouveau containers were German souvenir boxes, followed by French "Depose' " (patented) works. Then came the brass, bronze and silver art pieces. German souvenir boxes, very numerous products of the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) era are, whether, tin or spelter, almost all surfaced with a silver wash or are of copper plate. (An original gold surface is very rare.) These are safe with nail polish remover, and may be de-greased. An extra consideration of this large class of boxes/caskets, is that some may have acquired burn marks along the historical road. This is mostly WW 2 damage from firebombing or avenging Russians (history in your hands!). Fire damage may be partially amended by frictioning off the roughness with vigorous rubbing of a polishing cloth, but little else may be done. Determine the robustness of your metal surface before applying more pressure than the structure can stand.
As an addendum to the subject of box coatings, the collector, while encountering over-painted boxes, might notice that despite muting paint, some items are still shiny. Or they might sense that, while the surface is original, there seems to be something between the eye and the true item surface. If seen, chances are this is a coat of varnish or lacquer. In some cases, this seems to have been applied by the original manufacturers to help preserve the surface from friction, dirt and wear - which is the intent of a protective coating after all. Originally, also, this material is added to brighten and lighten color. For later applications by the original or succeeding owners, the intent was to probably make the later-day paint look smoother and more uniform, as well as to give an impression of as-manufactured shine. Unfortunately, over time, this coating eventually darkens, and becomes a nuisance of perception. It can even shed in patches or acquire a grainy feel and look.
Varnish and lacquer can be tough stuff, and if removed by paint remover, will take several applications. It can be a coating over later applied paint, or could be the final layer remaining after new paint is removed. After the first try you'll want to kick yourself, because you started out with a better looking surface than the one now confronting you. Don't be fooled by the cloudiness and opaque quality -- it just means that you have not reached the original surface, and have more work to do. ...And it will come off. Sometimes this coating alone is encountered, and sometimes you must get rid of this material first to get to the paint layers underneath - which will also have to go. Remember, the original surface of an American spelter box will not be harmed by this action. An original surface will be revealed -- just remember that the good (usually good!), or bad surprise awaiting you -- is a gamble into the unknown, including damage someone was trying to hide.
And, somewhere along the way of the recovery process, be sure to check under the fabric of all acquired Art Nouveau boxes for spilled seed pearls, sewing pins, etc... that may have worked their way under the fabric and lodged in the body or the hollow legs. Forgotten things may remain. In German souvenir boxes one may sometimes find things purposely hidden -- most likely from Soviet pillagers -- gemstones, jewelry, and such. It's worth a look, and a wistful thought or two.
In final sum, if you have a casket/box in your collection, you now know that you can maximize the objects' longevity and appeal. Further, if a choice, elaborate gem -- especially with a coveted manufacturer's seldom seen serial number, shows up on the market in a less than perfect condition, your restoration experience will give you a motivational edge over bidders willing to give up the fight because they don't know how to bring this baby back to life. Improved for you are chances that an item remains for sale long enough for you to encounter it for the very reason that it is probably a challenge -- some flavor of way-less-than-choice condition. You must see what other's cannot, know potentials, know your options and limitations, and be prepared to work miracles. ...And in this way is it additionally possible for a contemporary collector to broaden his/her chances to acquire a treasure and, patiently, piece by piece add to a fascinating collection. ...Or make a decent buck in resale.
Addendum note: DO NOT USE NAIL POLISH REMOVER ON COLORED TINS (INTERIOR OR EXTERIOR SURFACES) OR PAINTED BRONZE PIECES.
...A quick word about Art Nouveau tins. A bit outside the scope of this article, but here are a few truths. Don't use nail-polish remover to clean these. The gold wash inside and the paint design outside will be removed! Water only for these, and a gentle toothbrush. For rust spots on the exterior, rub gently with a wood pick to remove the roughness. Interior and exterior -- sparingly coat rust spots with 3-In-One oil. This will impede further growth of the rust, and will even help clean some of it off.
Thus concludes a summary breakdown of repair and restoration. Further questions, but no lawsuits, may be addressed to me via firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your kind attention. Steven P. Pody