15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Art Restorers
By Jane Rose
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.