Mark asked: How do I clean mold on ivory? Antique ivory carvings were stored in a high humidity environment and have mold spots.
Ivory is an organic material that quickly absorbs moisture. Caring for antique ivory requires special care not to apply any cleaners that may cause damage or discoloration. Over time, ivory darkens and/or turns yellow in color and develops surface coloring called a patina. This change is color is an indicator if its age and thus affects the value of the piece and should not be removed. If a cleaner is applied and the coloring is altered, you risk losing the value. When using the cleaning methods below, always test a small area first and proceed slowly to ensure there are no adverse effects. If ever you are hesitant to clean the piece on your own or want to ensure that the value is not affected, either leave it be or consult with a professional, such as an art restorer, who is experienced with caring for ivory.
You Will Need:
- White gloves
- Soft brush
- Ethyl alcohol
- Distilled water
- Mild plain dish detergent (not dishwasher detergent)
- Cotton swabs
- Paper towels or soft cloths or sponges
- Clean woolen cloth
Steps to Clean Antique Ivory:
*Always test a small hidden section first when applying any cleaners to ensure there are no effects to the surface and coloring of the piece. These methods are listed from the gentlest to the harshest cleanings. Choose one carefully that is right for your piece or simply start with the gentlest one and work your way down until your piece is clean. Each piece of ivory may react differently to the cleaning methods. Do not continue any cleaning that affects the color or value of your piece.
- Whenever you are handling an ivory piece, always wear clean white gloves as the oils from your hands will affect the coloring and can cause dark spots to form. Ensure the gloves are clean and were not dried with fabric softener as this too can transfer to the piece.
- General dusting of the piece can help a lot to enhance it without risking any damage. To remove dust and loose dirt, use the brush to gently brush away dirt. Take care to get into all of the tight areas as they are often dust collectors.
- If the piece requires more cleaning, moisten a soft cloth or cotton swab with clean distilled water. Blot it on a dry cloth to remove most of the moisture.
- Gently wipe a small area of the piece and dry immediately. If there is any effect to the coloring, discontinue use immediately.
- The next level of cleaning involves using a mild dish detergent. Mix a small amount of the dish detergent with clean water.
- Moisten a sponge or soft cloth with the mixture and wring it out completely.
- Gently wipe the piece and dry immediately with a clean soft cloth.
- If the piece can tolerate it (it is in good condition with no cracks or damaged areas) and requires a stronger cleaner, such as in the case of mold removal, combine 1 part ethyl alcohol with 1 part distilled water.
- Moisten a cotton swab with the mixture and blot on a dry towel to remove any excess moisture.
- Gently wipe a small area of the piece and dry immediately with a clean soft cloth. Work in small sections until the entire piece is cleaned. Again, if any discoloration shows, stop immediately.
- When the piece is dry, buff with a clean woolen cloth.
Additional Tips and Ideas
- If you are unsure whether your ivory is real or not, examine it with a magnifying glass. You will be able to see a grain pattern on real ivory, whereas a synthetic ivory will be smooth.¹
- Dark lines are common on true ivory and should not be removed. These are the growth marks from elephant’s tusks as the new layers form over the old ones. It is a sign of true ivory and will naturally darken and split over time.
- It is never recommended to submerse an ivory piece in any water or cleaning solution.
- Some sites recommend cleaning ivory by rubbing it with lemon and setting it in the sun. This will bleach the ivory and should not be used on antiques because removing the color will affect the value.
- Ensure none of the cloths used to clean the piece have been dried with fabric softener as it will transfer to the piece and can cause damage or markings on the surface.
- Avoid placing ivory pieces in direct sunlight. It causes bleaching or color changes and can lead to cracking.
- If the ivory piece is beginning to dry out, it may need to be hydrated. To accomplish this, saturate a soft cloth with mineral oil or glycerin and wrap it around the ivory piece. Allow it to set overnight. In the morning, wipe off any excess oil.
- Remember – it’s always better to consult with a professional than ruin a valuable antique piece.
- Saving Stuff by Don Williams
Just found this site. So glad that I did. I would have ruined the piece. I will be back!
We have a statue we believe to be ivory. It has been painted so we want to remove the paint. How do we remove it?
I have ivory salt and pepper shakers. One has something green on it. What should I try to clean it? Judy
The alcohol can work to remove dye stains (such as from food coloring). The green color from veggies is chlorophyll, which also acts like a dye, so it can work on those as well.
Source: HowToCleanStuff.net – How To Clean Grass Stains Off Siding
I have bought a c1850 4″ Lund Ivory propelling pencil which has black marks near the nib. Should I attempt to clean and remove the marks or just leave it as it is? Neil
With such an old piece, you should consult with an appraiser first as cleaning or removing the marks could lower the value of the piece.
I have an ivory dressing table set (brushes, mirror etc.). I have had it in a cupboard in my bedroom and it has brown spots on many pieces. I believe it was brought back from India by an uncle in the early 1930s. Do you have any advice on cleaning it or the name of someone in Jersey, Channel Islands, who would help me?
The article introduction mentions that over time, ivory will often turn brown and that is known as its ‘patina’ and it adds to the value of the item. Cleaning off the spots will likely decrease the monetary value of the item. If you want to clean them for personal use/preferance, the steps in the article can work. If you would prefer a professional to do the cleaning, contact a nearby museum that does restorations or an art gallery that has a professional restorer. Auction houses may also know of someone in your area. Good luck!
F. A. says
I have a set of dice from WWII that my brother-in-law brought back from Ceylon. He claimed they were ‘ivory’ but they have browned in colour over the years. Does this indicate that they are not ivory and I can try some ‘cleaner’ to bring back the ‘white’ colour?
Browning of ivory is natural. It indicates that they are true ivory and are very old. Browning is considered the ‘patina’ of ivory and adds to the value. Cleaning (whitening) the dice will likely lower their monetary value, so if that is important to you, you may want to check with an appraiser first. If you are not concerned with the value and want them white for personal use/preference, then the steps in the article can help. Good luck!
I have just bought at auction an ivory tusk that is brown and I was going to clean it. Having read this article, I will not.
Does elephant ivory need humidity?
Ivory is hygroscopic, meaning that reacts to humidity by absorbing or releasing water. In low humidity environments it releases too much water, causing it to become dry and crack. However, a high humidity environment can be damaging as well, causing it to swell and as a result, warp. Smaller ivory objects or ones with very thin areas on them are particularly susceptible to damage. To best preserve ivory, it should be stored in a closed container like a display case with a constant humidity level of about 50%. If your ivory becomes dry, rub it with some oil as described above.
Source: Canadian Conservation Institute – Care of Ivory, Bone, Horn and Antler
Source: Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute – The Care and Handling of Ivory Objects