The exhibits at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, escaped damage this September when Hurricane Irma struck—the museum has 18-inch-thick storm-proof walls. But the typical home doesn’t offer much protection to antiques and collectibles when hurricanes hit, floodwaters rise, pipes burst, roofs leak or sewer lines back up—and unless your valuables are all made of, say, solid gold, even brief exposure to water could turn your treasured possessions into soggy garbage.
Here’s how to protect your antiques and collectibles from water damage…
Prepare for Flooding
If a hurricane or flood warning is issued, time permitting, move antiques and collectibles to higher ground if possible—for example, to the second floor if you live in a two-story home. If your home is one-story high, store what you can on upper shelves. Exception: Store glass and ceramic items at floor level—these are at greater risk from falls than from floodwaters.
Larger antiques that cannot easily be relocated can at least be raised up on concrete blocks. Remove drawers from wood furniture that is too big to relocate, and move those drawers to a higher spot if possible. This prevents the drawers from getting stuck in place if water causes the wood to swell. (If there are multiple drawers of similar size, label each as you remove it.)
Last-minute tip: Stash valuable small items in your dishwasher and/or washing machine, ideally after sealing them in plastic bags. These appliances are designed to keep water in, but in an emergency, they can seal floodwaters out. They don’t keep out floodwaters 100% of the time, however, so do this only if there’s no way to get items to safety.
After a Flood…Limit the Damage
When it is safe to reenter your home, go room to room taking photos or video, documenting the damage for an insurance claim. Next, move any valuables that appear undamaged to safer, drier locations in your home if possible.
Tip: Contact your insurance provider as soon as possible to say that you expect to make a claim, but if you have valuable antique wood furniture, don’t be in a rush to have the insurance adjuster visit—wood often does not show the full extent of water damage until it dries and potentially cracks a week or more later.
Even after a flood, you might be able to limit the water damage to your antiques and collectibles—if you act fast…
• Wood furniture. If wood furniture is standing on a water-saturated carpet, put it up on concrete blocks or put plastic bags under its legs as soon as possible to prevent additional moisture from wicking up into the wood. If you have an antique that has wood veneer on its top—a very thin, decorative wood layer—cover this with waxed paper and gently place weights on it. This reduces the odds that the veneer will warp as it dries.
Use fans, dehumidifiers and/or air conditioners to circulate and dry air and slowly dry out the wood. If your electricity is out, consider renting a generator to power the equipment…or relocating valuable waterlogged antiques to a friend’s home that has power or to a climate-controlled storage facility.
Warning: Do not place water-damaged wood antiques in the sun to dry or use hair dryers or other heat sources to dry them. Heat dries wet wood too quickly, increasing the odds that it will warp or crack. Do not even turn on your home’s heating system unless necessary.
If a white film or white spots appear on the wood, soak a cloth in a solution of 50% ammonia and 50% water, rub this gently on the affected area, wipe the area dry, then polish with wax. If the film or spots persist and the antique is worth thousands of dollars or more, the prudent option is to contact a professional antiques furniture restorer. A local museum or antiques seller should be able to point you to a skilled restorer.
Exception: Upholstered furniture usually cannot be salvaged after a flood. One option is to save the wood frame and have the piece reupholstered.
• Silver, ceramics and glass. If ceramics, glass or silver pieces that got wet are used for dining, wash these at least twice using a phosphate-free detergent before serving food on them again—floodwaters can be contaminated by sewage. Warning: If glass or ceramics were exposed to muddy water, use water and a soft cloth to gently clear away any visible mud residue before attempting a more thorough cleaning. If clean running water is available, put them under that. Aggressive cleaning while there still is dirt on the surface could cause scratches or embed dirt particles in the surface.
If your silver has hollow spaces, such as hollow-handled flatware, shake it and listen for a subtle swishing sound. If you hear this, water is inside and you need to bring these pieces to a professional restorer.
If ceramic items were packed in newspaper that is now wet, remove the paper. The ink from wet newspaper can stain ceramics. (It’s always better to wrap items in unprinted, plain packing paper than in newspaper.)
• Paper collectibles. Baseball cards, paper money, prints and books that have sustained water damage often are a total loss. You could take them to a professional restorer, but even a pro is unlikely to be able to return a water-damaged paper item to anything close to mint condition, so this generally makes financial sense only with very rare items that are worth thousands of dollars even in less-than-pristine condition. Still, there are steps you can take that will improve the odds that water-damaged paper items will remain in presentable, if not collectible, condition.
Sprinkle cornstarch on wet paper items as soon as possible. Blow off this powder after the paper has dried, and any mold spores that are present often will blow away along with it.
Then to make sure that the paper is completely dry, place the paper between sheets of dry white paper, and place all three under something flat and heavy, such as a baking pan or cookie sheet with weights on top. This reduces the odds that the paper will curl as it continues to dry.
Wet books are difficult to rescue. One strategy is to place dry sheets of absorbent white paper, such as paper towels, between as many pages as possible—ideally between every page. Replace these periodically with new sheets of absorbent paper until this paper feels almost dry as you remove it. Then place sheets of absorbent paper between the pages one more time, lay the book flat and place something heavy on top of it.
Tip: If you do not have time to deal with water-damaged paper items immediately, wrap them in plastic and put them in your freezer. The wet paper won’t deteriorate any further as long as it is frozen.
Do You Have the Right Insurance for Antiques and Collectibles?
Your homeowner’s insurance policy probably provides antiques and collectibles coverage—but this coverage likely is capped at just a few thousand dollars, and it usually does not cover damage from flooding or backed-up sewer lines. (It generally does cover water damage from broken pipes and falling rainwater, however.) Additional coverage options…
You can add a rider to your homeowner’s insurance policy to cover backed-up sewer lines. These riders usually are inexpensive—often less than $50 a year—but their antiques and collectibles coverage typically is capped at just a few thousand dollars.
You can obtain flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. This could be very expensive if your home is in a flood zone, however, and the antiques and collectibles coverage provided by these policies is capped at just $2,500. What’s more, antiques are covered only for their functional value. Example: If a flood ruins your antique chair, this insurance will pay only the amount it would cost to buy a brand-new chair.
You can purchase a specialty antiques and collectibles insurance policy. These tend to be fairly inexpensive—perhaps $100 a year for $20,000 in coverage—and are worth having when homeowner’s insurance and/or flood insurance is insufficient. Be sure to confirm that the policy selected includes flood protection!
Whatever insurance you purchase, use a digital camera to photograph your valuables, create a file of the photos and keep a copy of this file somewhere other than in your house—and e-mail a copy to at least one friend or relative for safekeeping. These photos will help tremendously should you ever have to file a claim for destroyed items.