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Jan 16, 2018

From Fingerprints to Champagne Spills: Expert Conservators on How to Handle New Art Damage

Plus Tips for Investing in Art That Needs (or May Soon Need) Conservation

Art conservation--generally the purview of trade publications--became major news this fall with the case of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). The painting, which sold at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale this past November, realized a price of over $450 million. Yet, it also attracted much attention for the dramatic lengths that conservators had gone to alter the surface. Publications from The Daily Mail to New York Magazine discussed the intensive alterations that a world-class team had made to the warped and scratched original. da Vinci made the painting around 1500, and it cycled through many owners before arriving at auction; there was plenty of time to incur damage.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen an auction house put out so much information about the treatment and what the painting looked like when it was cleaned,” says conservator Karen Thomas, who runs Thomas Art Conservation in New York. “It can be hard for people to visualize how a painting will look before it’s cleaned versus after it’s cleaned, versus after it’s restored.” Ultimately, it was a wake-up call for collectors to think more seriously about the processes that their own works, and those they’ll buy in the future, may have to undergo.

The ongoing arguments about best practices in art conservation reveal a dynamic field in which techniques and philosophies are constantly evolving. Additionally, contemporary artists’ experiments with novel materials constantly give conservators new problems to solve. Below, three conservators discuss innovations in their materials as well as the most unusual challenges they’ve encountered.

New Materials in Art...

Soraya Alcalá, (who works for Westchester Art Conservation with Hélène Fontoira) explains why newer art presents conservators with unique problems. “There is a dividing line with Impressionism, when artists started buying materials instead of preparing it themselves,” she says. “With industrialization, we started losing information about the composition of the materials used.” Now, it’s her job to “dig into the world of ‘unknown recipes’ and related problems.”

In an on going project at The Objects Conservation Studio, LLC in Brooklyn, Alcalá and Sarah Nunberg are collaborating to determine the proper treatment to remove an all-covering restoration paint on a white wooden Louise Nevelson installation at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. Nevelson did not prepare the wood before painting it, and restoration paint applied afterwards, as well as the absence of climate control, worsened the condition. It took some time for Alcalá and Nunberg to determine the best way to clean the work. Which is all to say: be patient with your conservator--Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was any in-depth forensic art analysis. New materials require new solutions, and it can take professionals a long time to arrive at the right ones.

Recently, conservator Gloria Velandia, who runs her own eponymous firm,
faced a new material challenge: BIC pen ink. “A living artist works on these very intricate, beautiful, pristine surfaces” with the material, she says. The colors, sheens, and iridescence are unique, so she was perplexed as how to restore the piece when a visitor at an art fair accidentally put a fingerprint on it. A collector bought the piece, but Velandia needed more time to develop a treatment proposal in her studio. There, she created a mock-up artwork and imprinted her and her assistants’ fatty acids on the ink. Using different aqueous solutions with adjusted pH ratios, she finally arrived at a manner to fix the spot. She presented the artist and gallery with the altered mock up, to demonstrate how the original piece would look after her proposed restoration. If you’re a collector who’s wary about how your art will fare under conservation, ask conservators about their processes beforehand -- an experienced Conservator may be able to demonstrate roughly what the repair will do to the work before they make any attempts on the actual artwork.

....and Creative Ways to Damage It

Velandia experiences art fairs very differently than most of us. She and her team work behind the scenes as on-call art doctors, available for emergency repairs. Once, she climbed up a ladder while pregnant to retouch a woodblock artwork. A gallery had popped open a bottle of champagne during the first day of a fair, and it splattered all over the painting. During the evenings after the crowds left, Velandia worked to tone and paint, tone and paint. The piece actually sold the first day of the fair, and her team continued to bring it to an acceptable state throughout the fair’s duration.

Velandia describes another unusual assignment in which a woman wearing a valuable shahtoosh shawl brushed against a high-valued Donald Judd wooden sculpture, taking out a splinter. She and her team had to track down the woman and extract the shard from her outfit. They repaired both the sculpture and the shawl. “It was a lot like CSI Miami,” recalls Velandia. Know that whenever you go to an art fair, there may be aid onsite for day-of conservation queries. Just ask.

New Materials in Conservation

Many of the newer materials used for conservation often target the health and safety of conservators themselves. Thomas discusses how gels were developed in part to limit exposure to cancer-causing solvents, making them safer and more effective. “We still use many of the same solvents, but with the solvent held within the matrix of the gel, the solvent evaporates less, reducing the conservator’s exposure to the solvent. And, the solvent is held on the surface of the artwork, limiting penetration into the paint or other materials,” she says. There are new ways of using gels too--Thomas sometimes layers them with tissue paper so that she never has direct contact with the varnish or paint (a safer method for the painting itself). Rigid gels, which can form solid sheets, are newer products that help repair works on paper as well.

Rigid agar gel being used to soften adhesive residue on the back of a painting on canvas. Photo from Karen Thomas.

Alcalá mentions gels, too. “I previously experimented cleaning with bacterias and laser, but now I am more focused on nanotechnologies [using nanoparticles in restoration efforts] and the new gels created by CSGI (Center for Colloid and Surface Science) in Florence,” she says. According to her, the gels “dewet” an artwork’s surface instead of “solubilizing” it, giving the conservator more control.

Physical gels that behave as chemical gels. Photos from Westchester Art Conservation

Buying a Work that Needs Conservation

Don’t be turned off by a piece that needs a little work. Conservators are out there, ready for collectors with a range of needs. Just gather all the facts--about both the conservator and the impending work needed--before you make the investment. “The important thing is that you choose a conservator who’s really well trained and doesn’t just rely on the old ways of doing things,” says Thomas. “With the use of gels, we can be more careful than ever. The more someone knows about different cleaning methods, the better they’ll be.” Also look into a conservators’ educational background; the best graduate programs will keep students up to date on all the newest products and ideas about processes.

As for the artwork, Thomas advises collectors to “ask how much restoration is on the painting, whether there are any structural issues that will have any effect going forward in time, whether it needs cleaning and restoration, and what any conservation treatment should cost.” Factor all of this into the price you’re already paying.

It may even be worth speaking with a conservator before you buy a perfectly fine work of art. “I always recommend to contact a specialist conservator to obtain a report before [the collector invests in art, especially if the work of art is made with new or unusual materials,” says Alcalá. She outlines a few particular concerns:

Is the material organic or inorganic? This will hint at the work’s rate of decay. A painting made with cigarette butts, for example, won’t hold up like a ceramic sculpture, though that one will have its own particular aging problems too.If the work was made out of two or more materials, how are they attached? Adhesives age earlier than a dowel, or a peg.Where will you put the piece? Location impacts how well the piece will endure. Light, heat, cold, high or low humidity could all prove detrimental. An enclosure system might be necessary. Consider where you’ll mount the work before you purchase it.

Whether your work is made out of Cheetos or marble, conservators are out there who can develop a repair plan. Just give them a little time to figure it out, and ask the right questions beforehand. Whether the damage is a major scratch or a minor chip, it’s all just an intriguing--and solvable--puzzle to these professionals.

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