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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”