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Edgar Degas images in the Photoarchive of the Frick Art Reference Library

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Silver-Gilt Objects

Silver is a noble metal, and its physical properties, such as malleability, corrosion resistance, color, and luster, have been exploited for centuries. It typically appears white and shiny but will tarnish quickly when exposed to air, initially turning yellow, then dark iridescent gray. The removal of tarnish requires polishing, either with abrasives or chemical dissolution, which can remove fine detail or plating through repeated use. To minimize the effects of this treatment, museums typically exhibit silver objects in cases designed to reduce exposure to atmospheric pollution. The Frick Collection, however, is a house museum, and because it strives to maintain a domestic setting it does not use display cases in most of the permanent galleries.

The Frick Collection has eight silver-gilt wine coolers that are typically on display in the Dining Room.  These objects represent English silversmith work by William Pitts (1768–1818), Benjamin and James Smith (partners from 1809 to 1812), and Paul Storr (1771–1844). The wine coolers are in very good condition, but the gilt surface is quite worn because of repeated polishing and historic use. Polishing silver is a very time-consuming and careful process and in this case is further complicated by the presence of a thin, uneven layer of gold. To reduce the amount of wear on the gilt surface, conservators remove the tarnish by chemical dissolution, as opposed to abrasive methods, and apply a lacquer to protect the objects from exposure while on display to sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, or other pollutants in the air.


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