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Silver Savers

In the days after Katrina, As You Like It Silver Shop helped restore thousands of pieces of hurricane-damaged silver.

Buffing silver

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

About 20 years ago and with the best of intentions, my husband, Philip, and I transformed our small subterranean basement into an efficient storage area for party goods. We lined the concrete walls with wire racks and stacked dozens of wineglasses, plates, trays and baskets –– and, of course, lots of large silver pieces, all wrapped in a soft tarnish-preventative cloth or acid-free paper. On the floor, under one of the shelves, was a large Army footlocker filled with silver trays and bowls, all neatly wrapped. It was a great storage area that worked well. For awhile.

Then things got a little sloppy after Katrina –– “sloppy” meaning “8 feet of water poured into the basement (the rarely used sump pump took a leave of absence when the electricity went off) and stayed for weeks.”

Nasty, brackish, slimy, dirty water isn’t the best environment for silver storage. In fact, it’s the worst. As we unwrapped the gooey fabrics and gummy papers, we found beautiful old pieces of sterling, Sheffield and silver plate that now looked like cast iron. Serving pieces that belonged to my mother, mother-in-law and other relatives, along with our 30-year-old wedding silver, now looked like hopeless rejects.

With the help of my friend Lynn Favrot Nolan, who flew in that weekend to help friends and relatives, we washed, polished and did what we could to save our silver. We dried and boxed what we hoped to save and brought the boxes to As You Like It Silver Shop on Magazine Street for a little Rescue 911 work.

Owners Duncan and Tammy Cox had heard the story before. They patiently sat with me as we evaluated each piece. Sterling and much of the old plate could be polished or replated. But some of the pieces were too pickled and were sent to the FEMA pile.

Over the years, Duncan and his late mother, Helen, the store’s founder and a well-respected authority on silver, had assembled a large cadre of silversmiths from all over the country. Duncan and Tammy matched each piece to the best silversmith (it’s a very specialized business) and sent it off to be restored.

“We found that silversmiths across the United States wanted to help!” Duncan says. “They felt that even from afar, they could do something for a lot of Katrina families who were hurting.”

Ultimately, thousands of damaged pieces were brought to the Coxes for evaluation and, when possible, restoration. Sterling silver had the most potential. Silver plate could be saved, but saving it was worth doing only if it was an unusual piece or had great sentimental value to the owner. Because the water, especially in homes near the lake, was very salty, many silver pieces had salt “baked” into the surface, causing unsightly pitting. “We could polish all day long and never get it right,” he says.

Although we all hope Katrina was a once-in-a-century event, Duncan says that abuse can happen to silver in many forms. He has restored silver for well-meaning owners who have lovingly polished their treasures with Brillo pads, removing the surface. He also says strong polishes such as Tarn-X or the often-mentioned process of “soaking in a foil-lined sink with baking soda and boiling water” will remove the much-needed oxidation and will flatten the sheen on silver. The worst offense is to wrap silver in a clingy plastic wrap, such as Saran Wrap. “The chemicals that make the plastic cling put a permanent impression on silver,” Duncan says.

One bright spot to the economic downturn is that now is a good time to buy silver, he adds. Duncan recommends that a new collector look for pieces he or she will use or set up in a place where the piece can be admired often. He suggests that a collector on a budget start small with either pieces from a period he or she likes (art nouveau, art deco) or small items such as sterling silver napkin rings or saltshakers. He says that American sterling silver treasures from the late 1800s to early 1900s were the most innovative. “We won’t have this level of craftsmanship ever again,” he says. “It probably won’t be duplicated. For some of the better pieces, the prices will only go up.”

As for our restored pieces, well, most are residing happily in our 1800s Garden District cottage, though some are still in storage. This time, they are not in a basement but on the second floor of a climate-controlled storage unit. Each piece is wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in boxes that are surrounded by large industrial-strength plastic bags. They are shining happily once again and have never looked finer.

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