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Taking care of tortoise shell artworks
Taking care of oil paintings
Value of restoration and conservation
LA Times Story

Care of Tortoise Shell Art Works.

By Polina Golberg and Alexander Golberg.
July 24, 2012.

This article is for information purposes only, and is not intended as restoration advice. We recommend consulting with a professional restorer regarding your specific tortoise shell artifacts and your particular display and/or storage conditions.

Tortoise shell artifacts are semi translucent with brown, red, blond yellow, and amber color are polished to magnificent luster. Besides its magnificent luster and brilliant and unfading colors, the objects are half opaque, half translucent. Tortoise shell has traditionally been used in objects such as combs, brushes, musical instruments, inlay for furniture (including Boulle), trays, boxes, decoration for gold and silver art pieces, snuff and tobacco boxes, card cases, cane heads, tea caddies and jewelry.

The objects are typically made from shell of two tortoises. Hawksbill turtle is found off the West Indies and Brazil. Loggerhead turtle is found near Celebes. For the purpose of environmental protection, at present time US and most countries ban new tortoise shell harvesting and products, making preservation of existing artworks the only legal option of possession of tortoise shell artworks.

Hazards to Tortoise Shell

A variety of the environmental variables can cause problems for tortoise shell. The three easiest factors to avoid are humidity, liquids, and light exposure.


One of the most important variables affecting the well-being of the tortoise shell is humidity level. High humidity levels can affect these objects. Air saturated with moisture will lead to brown spots, and can cause warping and cracking.

Water & other liquids

Direct contact with water, acetone, nail polish will dull the translucent finish by removing natural oils embedded in the shell. Therefore, it is crucial to store tortoise shell objects in the environment which will not produce “morning dew’ effect of condensation of humidity due to lowering temperature.

Light and Heat

Sunlight can cause cracking of the turtle shell. Direct sunlight, as well as artificial lighting with UV radiation, can cause dullness to polish and create greenish hue as the surface moisture dries out. Therefore, such objects should always be kept out of sunlight.

These damages can slowly occur over time. To prolong the health of tortoise shell, the objects should be in climate controlled atmosphere, as described above. If any signs of damage to the surface are noticed, advice of a professional conservator should be sought.

Display and Storage

Most of the previously described damages can be avoided with proper display and storage conditions.

When an artifact is not on display, proper storage is imperative. Always store tortoise shell objects in a climate controlled environment. The climate control needs to avoid high humidity, contact with liquids (including airborne water droplets with could occur due to changing air temperature), and exposure to light.

Routine cleaning, using a soft sable brush or lint-free cloth, should be attempted for removal of dust particles lightly attached to the surface.

When not on display, storage in boxes is recommended in order to minimize scratches to the surface of the object.

Following the general guidelines will ensure the longevity of the tortoise shell without a need for frequent conservation work. These guidelines are as follows:

  • 1. Carefully displaying the objects in a climate controlled environment,
  • 2. Avoiding direct sunlight,
  • 3. Very careful dusting,
  • 4. Avoiding high humidity,
  • 5. Avoiding fluctuations in levels of temperature and humidity.
If damage does occur, it is usually best to address it right away; postponing treatment can lead to further deterioration.

Due to the delicate nature of tortoise shell objects, restoration attempts should only be made by a professional restorer. Golberg Restoration Co offers a variety of restoration services for tortoise shell art works. Please visit www.restorationworld.com/tortoise.htm for more information.

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