What is the best way to conserve a work of art and what do we need to know about painting restoration?
We think of restoration mostly when news hit the media that under decades of varnish and most likely in an attic, a masterwork is discovered - after careful cleaning and restoration. Auction houses as well as museum often announce re-attribution after thorough work by specialised restorers. One such example is the potential Self-Portrait from 1635 by Diego Velázquez in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which was re-attributed to the Spanish painter after a thorough restauration in 2009 (link). Similarly, Sandro Botticelli’s Man of Sorrows was sold by Sotheby’s New York at the end of 2021 after it was attributed to the Renaissance Italian painter after cleaning and exhibition in a museum exhibition. The painting – sold as a Botticelli - made 45 million US Dollar, after it was purchased in 1963 for 10,000 British Pounds as being by a follower of the artist. (link)
While everyone might dream of finding a masterwork under dust and layers of paint in the attic, we forget that also contemporary art needs to lot of care and at times the helping hand of a restorer to ensure its conservation over time. The benefit of old master paintings is that they have already survived hundreds of years and that both canvas and wood panels with their layers of oil are mediums well researched and usually relatively easy to restore, especially if it is varnishes that need to be removed, which were often added in later times.
20th Century art materials, with the explosion of offers of paints, carriers, and other materials, are a very different matter. Collectors should be aware of what they are buying and what longevity an artwork either inherently has or under what conditions it should be kept. Or ultimately, what change processes are part of the work. In addition, environmental factors, the light, humidity, temperature in which art lives, is important. With climate change becoming an element of everyday life, so might be its impact on art and more precautions are necessary.
Most famous in regard to medium based deterioration in 20th Century art history are probably Andy Warhol’s Polaroids. Polaroids suffer from common types of damage, such as fading and discolouration. Already in 1983, the company itself produced a guide on how to store, handle and preserve Polaroid Photographs. (Botticelli, Peter. "Preserving Artworks Digitally: The Case of Andy Warhol’s Polaroid Photographs" Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, vol. 44, no. 3, 2015, pp. 123-134. link)
So, what can collectors do to ensure they have a collection that will become a legacy?
Conservation from the Start
Annett Quast, Conservator, Munich: “The best care for a collection is to look after it adequately from the start: Work with a specialised art transport company for example. Don’t safe on packaging, make sure it is adequate and discuss the transport insurance in advance. If you collect prints, make sure they are mounted and framed according to archival standards. Work on paper and photography should be framed behind UV-glass. It’s important that no direct sunlight falls onto such works, but also be careful that north facing walls can be more humid. Don’t ever store work on the floor. And most of all – don’t clean works and tell you house help: don’t touch!”
There are some general considerations each collector should think about. Consider what is more important to you: To keep art works under museum-like conditions or live with them (while being mindful of risks). That could mean ensuring drawings and other works on paper are kept in darker rooms or even only unframed in drawers, and that also photographs are kept out of direct sunlight. Or you just ensure humidity and temperature are fairly level and protect work on paper by frames with adequate museum-quality glass and backing for example. But you still are aware that any exposure might make it less pristine.
Be careful how you clean glass. Many artworks are damaged by the residue of cleaning products that amount inside frames and seep unto works. If you have a cleaner or other help do ensure you instruct them and give them a strict list of dos and don’ts. American Collector Agnes Gund famously told of the story how her cleaner threw away the card board box of Christo’s “Nine Packed Bottles” (Louisa Buck and Judith Greer, Owning Art, 2006, p. 207) but how they were able to find it again quickly (link).
Don’t touch your sculptures with bare hands – think of the advice in museums and galleries – as hands can leave marks over time even on bronze or stone.
If you install works outdoors, make sure they are appropriately fixed and installed by an art shipper or the artist.
Remember that also digital art needs to be carefully looked after. This includes not only the medium itself (such as film, photo, files) but also the display equipment. You don’t want to have a film on a file you can’t play anymore ten years later.
If in doubt, do check with the gallery, artist, or even auction house you buy from, how to best look after your object. Be aware that some works do change as they age, and that this might be in the intention of the artist.
“A collector of contemporary art should not be scared by questions of materials. In the end, one collects out of passion and joy and lives with the art one likes. However, it is also important to think about that one has to care for one’s art. So, it is important to ask questions before buying a work of art, being this the artist directly, a gallerist or a trusted restorer. If you buy at action request a condition report and judge yourself, or with the help of a restorer the actual state, so you are not presented with a bad surprise.” (Annett Quast)
Certain materials do deteriorate, as they were never made to last forever: organic matters might moulder, pens might fade, plastic might fade or crack, paints might discolour. Not all grounds are stable, and parts of works might drop off. Not all contemporary art will survive. Know what to expect from the works you buy.
But what can you do when things either go wrong and an object is damaged?
Be aware that a work bought in the secondary market might have had restorations already. So do your research before you buy and considered using a restorer to consult. Chevalier describes this as a frequent issue she has to deal with: “For old paintings or Modern Art, the recurring problems concern their de-restoration. The most difficult thing is to remove materials brought by a previous restoration, such as removing a lining or oily repaints or synthetic varnishes. The materials age by releasing pollutants, it is important to return to the original stratigraphy (material integrity), as much as possible.”
Do work with a recommended restorer – it is one of these professions which are not regulated in every country, and you want to ensure no further damage comes to your work. You can either go peer recommendations, restorer associations, ask in a museum, or even ask your art insurer, as they will have lists of restorers on hand.
The French restorer Aurélia Chevalier recommends: “In each country, there are directories of qualified conservators to which collectors can refer (the SKR/SCR in Switzerland or the FFCR in France). Qualified conservators have received technical, historical, and scientific training, which is very important. The restorer intervenes on the material and can modify it forever. To be sure, the collector can ask him: what are the consequences of the treatment’s result on the long-term conservation of his work?”
If an accident happens, tell your insurance right away, and take a picture of the damage without ideally moving the object. The contact a restorer for help. Hopefully it won’t be as bad, as when Texas Casino Magnate Steve Wynn put his elbow through is his painting “Le Rêve” by Pablo Picasso. link). But even that got fixed by an experienced restorer.
Chevalier recommends: “The love affair with a work of art is the most important thing but asking about the state of conservation is just as important. Every sale should be accompanied by a condition report and conservation advice.” It is important to see conservation as a natural part of the collecting process. In addition to adequate insurance, being familiar with basic guidelines of preservation is a key success to the longevity of the collection. Knowledge of good local conservators and restorers and a good relationship with them is not only important for large collections, it can also help a smaller collector to ensure the work is well-looked after. Don’t be afraid of Contemporary Art and its materials, however. German artist Joseph Beuys stated the often-cited phrase: “That is why the nature of my sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, colour changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.” (link) Most importantly, get involved with your art works, look at them daily and pay them attention. Then you will notice if things change.
Villafranca Soissons, I.; Scala, C. Art Work : Conserving and Restoring Contemporary Art, English edition.; Villafranca Soissons, I., Ed.; Scala, C., Translator; Marsilio: Venice, 2018.
“Living Matter: The Preservation of Biological Materials in Contemporary Art”
A conference organized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografia (ENCRyM) of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico City, June 3–5, 2019 (link)
NOORDEGRAAF, JULIA, et al., editors. Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives. Amsterdam University Press, 2013. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wp6f3. Accessed 27 Jul. 2022.