15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Art Restorers

iStock
iStock

Nothing lasts forever, and that includes expensive and beloved works of art, which can be damaged through accident or over time through natural decay. Fortunately, the efforts of a skilled art conservator or restorer can extend the lives of such pieces and keep them looking beautiful for a very long time.

Art conservation refers to the process of maintaining works of art against future damage, while restoration more often refers to repairing damage that has already occurred. Many professionals are adept at both. For those on the outside, the work these experts perform can seem either romantic and rewarding, or painstaking and nerve-wracking. We talked to several experts in the field for their insight about what goes into keeping art beautiful. 

1. CONTEMPORARY ART CAN BE HARDER TO RESTORE THAN OLD MASTERS.


One might think that centuries-old paintings, with their layers of accumulated grime, would be harder to restore than works done much more recently. But Barbara Bertieri, a painting conservator and restorer in New York City who represents Fine Arts Conservation Inc along with Abraham Joel, says that’s not the case.

“With Old Masters,” she says, “the artists were trained in certain ways, and were very good at preparing pigments and canvas.” Because the older painting techniques are so well-established, they are quite familiar to restorers, as are the means of repairing such works. Contemporary art, though, can be much more unpredictable, and include all sorts of materials. “You never know what you’re facing,” Barbara says. “There can be water-soluble paint, oils and even objects in the same painting.” That can make the work a much bigger challenge. 

2. THE ART MARKET DRIVES A LOT OF BUSINESS. 


Steve Tatti, a sculpture conservator in Manhattan, has seen his fair share of clients, from museums to private collectors to entire municipalities. Increasingly, he says, restoration is driven by private collectors looking to cash in on their investments, rather than larger institutions.

“A lot of the time, someone wants to sell something and it has not been maintained,” he says. In that case, the client will hire a restorer to make the necessary repairs so that the piece will bring the best price at auction. Other times, economic trends may open up a whole new market. Barbara and Abraham say they cater to a sector of the Indian art market that has only cropped up in the last 10 to 15 years, due to the growth of the Indian economy and a new interest in art there.

3. SO DOES NATURE. 

Often it’s the inevitable damage done by natural forces that brings work to a restorer’s door. Many of the pieces at Barbara and Abraham’s studio bear cracks, tenting, and discoloration that are the result of changes in humidity, temperature, light, and age. Steve, whose company specializes in outdoor sculpture, grapples even more directly with the effects of nature in the course of his work. Marble and stone melt away over time due to acidity and pollution in the air, while brownstone, he says, “explodes in layers.” Bronze holds up better, though oxidation does eventually take a toll.

4. SO, UNFORTUNATELY, DOES HUMAN ERROR. 


Mistakes happen, but they can be all the more dire when a piece of art worth thousands or millions of dollars is involved. High turnover in auction houses and warehouses can sometimes lead to accidents, and even works in museums can be subject to misfortune. Barbara describes a situation where a client’s piece fell from its frame to the floor and broke because it was framed incorrectly. Steve says he commonly encounters clients who take the idea of outdoor art a bit too literally and “will put a sculpture outside and think that it needs no maintenance,” leading to more serious damage later on. 

5. THEY HAVE TO VIEW THINGS IN THE RIGHT LIGHT. 

Restorations that look great in one type of lighting can be glaringly obvious in another. For this reason, Barbara and Abraham make sure to look at their work under as many different artificial and natural lighting conditions as possible (they also emphasize the need to look at a repair from as many angles as possible).

UV light is also a common tool in a restorer’s arsenal. Light within the ultraviolet range causes organic materials, and some inorganic ones, to auto-fluoresce (or glow, basically) at different levels of intensity, depending on their age and when they were applied, revealing even skillfully done touch-ups. This can help the restorer understand what kind of work has already been done on a piece. 

6. THEY BORROW FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES.


In addition to artistic implements such as brushes and paint, and high-tech devices like UV, infrared light, and x-ray, restorers also borrow items from unrelated fields. “This industry is not big enough that they are going to make everything we need specially for us,” Barbara says, “so we end up borrowing from a lot of other places.” This includes using scalpels, droppers, and clamps from the medical industry, picks from dentistry, tweezers from jewelers, and even polyester sailcloth for backing damaged paintings.

7. SOMETIMES THE BEST TOOL IS NO TOOL. 

A conservator’s accumulated knowledge and intuition can be their most useful tool. Steve says that his training in Florence in the 1970s focused on a holistic approach that relies primarily on his senses. “I rely on my eye, my touch, my taste, my sense,” he says, explaining that he can also knock on a metal sculpture and tell what type of metal it is made of, or touch a piece of stone and determine what it is based on its temperature. He allows that this ability is not necessarily so magical—it’s just a product of experience. “Even guys who work in scrap metal can do the same thing,” he says. 

8. THEY KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE. 


An important part of being a skilled conservator is knowing when it’s better not to interfere. “Very little should be done to paper,” Abraham says. He stresses that overzealous treating or bleaching a discoloration on the border of a work on paper risks ruining the whole thing, particularly if the central image itself looks okay. Likewise, applying a varnish with the intent of protecting a painting risks changing the color saturation or character of the work. And over-cleaning of a painting with a harsh solvent can lift away pigment that cannot be returned.

9. THEY CAN GET LONELY, AND SOMETIMES A BIT OBSESSIVE.

While the work of a dealer involves a lot of interaction with clients and schmoozing, the job of an art restorer can be a solitary one requiring long hours in close communion with artworks. “We don’t get to speak to a lot of people in a typical day,” Barbara explains. “It’s just you and your work.” And that work can be extremely exacting. Barbara explains that restorers can become “almost obsessed. If you are in a gallery and you see someone looking very closely at a painting,” she says, “that is probably a restorer.” 

10. THEIR JOB CAN BE HAZARDOUS.


While the use of such materials is on the decline, art restoration has historically involved hazardous solvents and other substances. Barbara notes it was once common practice for restorers to clean their hands in acetone, turpentine, and mineral spirits, materials known to irritate or damage the skin, lungs, and mucous membranes. 

Working environments, too, can be difficult. Steve’s company was tasked with removing two murals by the artist Carybé from a JFK Airport terminal while it was being prepped for demolition and lacking heat in the middle of winter. Plus, when deadlines are looming, or there’s some kind of emergency, art conservators will often work all night. 

11. THERE IS USUALLY NO SCRIPT TO FOLLOW.

For a restorer, jobs like the removal of the Carybé mural from the wall of JFK Airport can have no precedent. Each mural weighed one ton, was nearly 17 feet tall and over 50 feet long, and was deeply integrated into the wall structure. Steve describes being uncertain if the murals would disintegrate while being removed. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” he says, but “beyond nerve wracking—more like an out-of-body experience. There was no way to prepare for it. No way to plan for it. Either you have to be up for these things, or ...” 

12. SOMETIMES THEY UNCOVER FAKES.

The shadowy world of art fakes and forgeries provides fodder for news stories as well as books and movies, but these stories are considerably less fun for buyers and others on the receiving end. It sometimes falls to the conservator to break the bad news to a client. Abraham describes working on a collection of paintings being represented to a Far East collector as 15th-17th century works by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, and others, only to have x-rays reveal that they were actually 19th century copies. On the flip side, sometimes a conservator has the happy experience of proving a painting’s provenance. A highlight for Barbara and Abraham’s Fine Arts Conservation was revealing the signature on Antoine Dubost’s 1804 work Sword of Damocles during cleaning. 

13. SOMETIMES THEY CREATE FAKES.


Occasionally the best way to protect a valuable piece of public art from the elements is simply to bring it indoors. Many institutions and municipalities, particularly in Europe, have made the decision to place original works in more protective surroundings and to create a copy in hardier materials for outdoor display. Steve calls this practice “the greatest solution for outdoor conservation.” His team was responsible both for restoring the figure of Lady Baltimore on the 1814 Baltimore Battle Monument and for creating the replica figure that currently stands on the monument (the original was brought to Maryland’s Historical Society). They are carrying out similar work on the wooden figure of St. Paul that graced the top of St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, which will be fully restored, moved indoors, and replaced by a resin replica.

14. NO PUBLICITY IS OFTEN THE SAME AS GOOD PUBLICITY.

The work of a skilled restorer is often invisible, taking place deep behind the scenes, and is aimed at erasing damage done to art rather than drawing any attention to it. Abraham points out that silence is often a sign of a job well done. “If you do your work well, nobody knows about it,” he says. 

15. THE BEST CLIENTS ARE THE ONES WHO LOVE ART. 

While many in the business say art collecting is becoming increasingly commodity-driven, there are still collectors who are motivated by a love of art itself. Collectors with a strong passion are Barbara’s favorite: She explains that those who view art as an investment can be more frustrated by damage to their property than glad to find a professional who knows how to fix it. They can also focus too much on the fact that the value will not be the same as before. Art lovers, on the other hand, “think of [restorers] as someone who rescues their treasure. They thank us so much, it’s good for us.”

All photos courtesy iStock.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Easter Bunnies

This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Every year, thousands of families, church groups, and event planners enlist entertainment companies to dispatch a costumed bunny for their Easter celebrations. These performers often endure oppressive heat, frightened children, and other indignities to bring joy to the season.

It can be a thankless job, which is why Mental Floss approached several hares and their handlers for some insight into what makes for a successful appearance, the numerous occupational hazards, and why they can be harassed while holding a giant carrot. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on under the ears.

1. They might be watching netflix under the mask.

Has a bunny ever seemed slow to respond to your child? He or she might be in the middle of a binge-watch. Jennifer Ellison, the sales and marketing manager for San Diego Kids’ Party Rentals and a bunny wrangler during the Easter season, says that extended party engagements might lead their furry foot soldiers to seek distractions while in costume. “We book the bunny by the hour and he is often booked for multiple hour blocks,” she says. “Listening to music definitely helps the time pass.” One of her bunny friends who does a lot of shopping mall appearances has even rigged up a harness that can cradle a smart phone. “It sits above the bunny's nose, resting right at eye level for the performer inside, easily allowing the performer to stream Netflix, scroll through Facebook, or check emails.”

2. They can’t walk on wet grass.

Bunnies that appear at private functions, like backyard parties or egg hunts, have to maintain the illusion of being a character and not a human in a furry costume. According to Albert Joseph, the owner of Albert Joseph Entertainment in San Francisco and a 30-year veteran of Easter engagements, one of the cardinal rules is never to set foot on wet grass. Why? “They wear regular shoes under their giant bunny feet,” he says. “If they step on wet grass and then walk on cement, they’ll make a human foot print, not a bunny print.”

3. There’s a reason they might not pick up your kid.

Bunnies might be amenable to posing for a photo with your child on their lap, but they’re probably not going to grab the little tyke and sweep them off their feet. According to Steve Rothenberg, a veteran performer and owner of Talk of the Town Entertainment in Rockville, Maryland, deadlifting a kid is against the rules. “The last thing you want is to lift them up and have them knock off your head,” he says.

4. Giant carrots will invite inappropriate behavior.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
As the 3-foot-long carrot proves, adults are easily the least mature guests at a child's Easter party.
lisafx/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Joseph’s warren of party bunnies usually come equipped with a 3-foot-long giant carrot as a prop. While children are amused by the oversized vegetable, the adults at the parties usually can’t help making observations. “Practically every visit, there’s always someone saying, ‘My, what a big carrot you have,’” he says.

On one occasion, Joseph attended a function at a retirement home. One of the women, who he estimated to be in her 80s, commented on his big feet in a lascivious manner. “She told me she was in room 37.”

5. Clothes make the bunny.

Easter bunny at the White House.
Every year, a well-dressed Easter bunny visits Washington, D.C. for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While “naked” (i.e., unclothed) bunnies remain popular, Ellison’s lineup also includes Mr. Bunny, a “classy lad with a top hat and vest,” and a Mrs. Bunny sporting a purple dress. Why would kids care if a bunny has sartorial sense? “Kids can probably better relate to a giant, furry character if it's dressed like a human,” Ellison says. “[And] we just thought the costumes looked cute.”

6. They can’t wear dark clothing underneath.

If a bunny wants to wear a black shirt under his or her fur, it stands to reason there wouldn’t be any issue: It's all hidden from sight. But Joseph insists that his cast stick with white apparel only. In addition to being cooler, it serves a practical function. “There’s always an opportunity to see a little something around the neckline or near the feet,” he says. Light clothing helps preserve the character.

7. They use an upholstery cleaner for their heads.

Most bunny costumes can be tossed in any regular washing machine, with the feet going in a larger commercial-use unit. But the heads, which are typically massive and unwieldy, get special attention. “You know those upholstery cleaners you can rent from a grocery store?” Joseph asks. “We use those. There’s a wand attachment to it for cleaning carpet.”

8. There’s a trick to keeping cool.

Costumes made of fake fur in the spring can be a recipe for disaster—or at least some lightheadedness. While none of the bunnies we profiled had experienced fainting spells, Ellison says that the trick to staying cool is actually adding a layer underneath the outfit. “Light, breathable clothing underneath the suit usually does the trick, but some people choose to wear an ice vest under the suit as well.”

Many bunnies also work in intervals: 45 to 50 minutes “on,” and 10 to 15 minutes in a private area to cool off and drink water. “Clients are usually understanding and sympathetic of the bunny and will allow even more breaks if necessary,” Ellison says.

9. Mints are essential.

Bunnies may favor carrots and grass, but their human operators need something other than that in order to deal with the humidity. Rothenberg says that his bunnies usually nibble on mints while working a crowd. “They’ll typically chew gum or have some kind of mint to keep their throat from drying out,” he says.

10. They use bunny handlers to prevent knockdowns.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
An Easter Bunny makes a young girl's day.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Any professional bunny knows that having an assistant watching their back is the best way to ensure an appearance goes smoothly. “Your vision is limited and you can’t really look to the left or right,” Rothenberg says. “Having an assistant prevents kids from running up behind you.”

11. They have damaged butts.

In order to ease apprehensive kids, Joseph advocates for his bunnies to squat near a child rather than bend over. “It gets them at a child’s level so they can touch and feel for themselves,” he says. “But a bunny that does a lot of squatting winds up needing their [costume] butts re-sewn. I’ve repaired a lot of them.” Joseph will also invite mothers to sit on the bunny’s lap so fearful children are more likely to approach. “You don’t want to prod the kid,” he says.

12. They’re not just for easter.

While bunny costume season is a fleeting few weeks, companies are happy to roll out their rabbits for other occasions. Once, Ellison sent out a bunny for a customer’s Alice in Wonderland-themed gathering. “The client wanted the White Rabbit, so we dressed up our bunny in a vest and top hat and gave him an over-sized pocket watch. It worked out great.”

This piece originally ran in 2017.