Why a Fine Art Conservator —
Not Just A Restorer
For fine art collectors, knowing the difference is priceless
By Gordon Lewis
In the 1960s, art restoration underwent a seismic shift from an obscure craft to a science-supported academic profession, focusing on conservation (preservation) combined with restoration skills. Traditionally, restorers learned their trade through apprenticeship. However, today’s conservator has a master’s or Ph.D. in conservation science. Only a handful of master degree programs is available in major universities, and even fewer offer a doctorate. Harvard offers an abbreviated 10-month certificate program. These advanced degree programs focus on chemistry, diagnostics, and restoration technology and technique. This is particularly important in today’s evolving world where contemporary artists are using
materials never even contemplated by traditional artists.
While contemporary media and techniques pose challenges for conservators, unfortunately, there are some pieces that cannot be successfully conserved or restored. Recently we saw a contemporary painting on which the Chinese artist had applied paint so thickly that, while it cured on the surface, it formed a crust which prevented the massive amounts below it from hardening, causing the paint layer to slide off its surface. We talked with Christie’s in London (who have sold several of the artist’s works, and their first words were, “Is it sliding off the canvas?”) There are some problems with no solutions.
A Steady Hand & Chemistry Required
There are many restorers with admirable hand skills. However, lacking a mastery of chemistry with its vital understanding of the potentially devastating interaction of materials can leave the artwork aesthetically beautiful and fatally flawed or damaged. We had a highly valuable contemporary painting brought to us when the owner noticed a problem with a previous restoration; a varnish-like surface coating was erupting into small craters. Scientific analysis showed the coating to be polyurethane rather than picture varnish. It chemically cross-linked (a process in which two materials become irreversibly bonded together) with the painting below it, and could not be removed without also removing the paint layer. The picture is ruined and worthless. The collector had chosen a restorer rather than a conservator because of cost.
Today, a grad student passes through a rigorous series of academics, apprenticeships and graduate fellowships to become fully qualified. A baccalaureate is required in art history, chemistry or studio art, and several years’ apprenticeship to an established conservator. Next is application to a degree program. There are four in the United States, accepting five to seven students per year; the competition is ferocious. In the New York University program’s first year, seven students were selected from 3,000 applicants. After obtaining a master’s or Ph.D., there follows another four+ years as a graduate fellow in a museum or academically oriented setting. The investment is 13-15 years to become a fully qualified conservator, as compared to several months to a year to become a restorer.
Choosing a conservator is like choosing a doctor. Too many collectors make the mistake of selecting on price rather than expertise. Like doctors, conservators have varying skill levels, and, like doctors, the best are generally more expensive, but there is a greater confidence in their ability. Most conservators today are members of the AIC (American Institute of
Conservation); those who have undergone successful peer review of their knowledge, education and skills are awarded the designation of ‘Professional Associate.’ Unfortunately, the AIC Professional Associate designation, while increasing the collector’s chances of selecting a highly skilled conservator, does not ensure it. For example, the accredited fine art appraiser on our staff was commissioned to value a wonderful Americana painting recently restored by another Professional Associate conservator. Unfortunately, the restoration was highly visible. Americana experts asked if we had performed the restoration; fortunately it was not our work. The value of the picture was diminished by the unsatisfactory restoration. Some may feel that appraisal and conservation under the same roof may lead to a conflict of interest; indeed, in unethical hands, it could. For ethical reasons, there are occasions to decline one of the two. However, the AIC Code of Ethics recognizes members may be academically trained and accredited appraisers.
Tools of the Conservator
Conservators, have a number of advanced scientific instruments to assist in diagnosis and treatment. For years, conservators have used microscopes, but now our laboratory is one of four in the country (National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum, Getty) with an electronic imaging microscope. Originally developed for vascular surgery, it is unparalleled for precision restoration of paintings, paper and objects. There are sealed vaults to kill mold with hydroxyls (a non-chemical process, harmless to paintings, paper and objects) and large chambers lined with UV lights, which harmlessly clean paper in liquid baths using selective wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation. Excitingly, there is a new gel technique for cleaning paper without water. Then, there are sophisticated vacuum hot tables for paintings treatment and special lights with adjustable wavelengths (mimicking any lighting condition) for exacting retouching.
Conservation implies ‘saving,’ and trained conservators are skilled in both preserving an artwork and restoring it as much as possible, to the condition in which one expects to find it today. Not necessarily to its original condition. There are several keys to top-quality conservation and restoration. First, from an ethical and mechanical standpoint, the restoration must be reversible; from the standpoint of connoisseurship, “the condition in which one expects to find it today” cannot be overstated. The art cannot look restored to the point that it visibly stands out from other works of its age. There are varying standards in this: It is desirable for an Impressionist picture to be clean, but have a very slight glow of aging varnish, where a French academic painting (of the period preceding Impressionism) should be completely clean, sparkling, and flawless. These are a few of the many varying standards regarding how museums and collectors expect to see a specific school of painting, or a specific painter’s work; your conservator must be an expert in them.
For more information about The Fine Arts Conservancy or to reach Gordon Lewis, visit www.art-conservation.org.