Resurrecting a Masterpiece
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
Inside a nondescript building at an unassuming industrial park in Palm Beach County, Florida, a man and a masterpiece of portraiture meet face-to-face. The man, art conservationist Gordon Lewis, is staring at a 1631 work, “Portrait of Nicholas van Bambeeck,” by Rembrandt. His task? Remove nearly 400 years of dirt and repair the ravages of age. After studying the artist and the piece, Lewis will work with great care and little speed to restore its value and return it to the private owner who has already rejected a $58 million offer to buy it. [For confidentiality purposes, we’re unable to show the Rembrandt here – but trust me when we tell you it’s breathtaking!]
With 40 years’ experience in art conservation and restoration, Gordon counts among his clientele private owners, major dealers and 28 museums, among them, the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institutions, Lowe Museum and Bass Museum, both in Miami; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the esteemed Uffizi Gallery in Florence. His trained hands have touched the works of Peter Paul Rubins, Gilbert Stuart, Dali, Botero and Picasso, to name a few.
Restoration vs Conservation
Gordon’s firm, The Fine Arts Conservancy, specializes in repairing paintings, works of art on paper, sculpture, decorative arts, furniture and frames. The structure that houses his offices and labs is climate-controlled, with digital locks on all doors and armored windows for security. In his work area, monitors attached to cameras show magnified sections of damaged portraits. Only two other institutions have the same electronic imaging microscopes found at his conservancy: The National Gallery of Art and Metropolitan Museum.
Gordon is quick to note the difference between restorers and art conservationists. “Restorers have very good hand skills. Some are painters in their own right. They will take a picture and make it look good, sometimes very good indeed.” But they don’t understand the potential adverse impact of chemicals on the original work, he says. “I have seen more paintings destroyed this way than you can shake a stick at.”
A look behind the scenes
The founder of the Fine Arts Conservancy offers a glimpse into the mind of a conservationist. “It is a deep, dark recess. Every now and then, something bubbles to the surface.” Getting serious, he says, “Working on a piece of art is only part of the restoration process. Another very important part is sitting down to contemplate how you are going to approach it.” The conservationist must also decide if the portrait is going to a museum or onto the market.
“With private collections, we can assume that the work is going up for sale. We have to try and buy back as much of the value in the piece as possible. Sometimes, we can bring it back totally; other times, partially and sometimes, nothing can be done.” In the latter case, he quips, “We give the owner a spade and a little head marker and send it out to the back yard.”
Working with his wife, Laney, a specialist in valuable, antique frames, and a staff of two, Gordon admits he never knows what will enter his door. “A woman came in with a 24-by-18-by-3 box. It contained a child’s dress made of pure gold threads. The girl’s great-uncle had been a British viceroy to India, and it was a gift from one of the maharajahs.”
The conservationist can restore “pretty much every medium. It’s a lot of fun.” And the excitement of the job “is enough to keep me coming in every morning.”
In his job, Gordon says he has learned that economic value often differs from sentimental value. “A couple of years ago, a man came in with a broken porcelain vase. I told him I could repair it for $700-$800, but I had seen the same vase in Macy’s for $90.” The man insisted, saying, “This was the last thing my late wife and I bought together before her untimely death.”
Gordon has also seen the very rich squander multi-million dollar pieces. “A friend who owns a triplex in the Carlyle Hotel called and said she wanted a piece of furniture restored. As I was walking up a spiral staircase there, I passed a Matisse that I saw was flaking. I told her it needed work badly. She said, ‘Uh, it’s just decoration.’”
Another client, he says, overlooked a deteriorating set of paintings because she “didn’t like them.” Gordon asked, “Why don’t you donate them? and she said ‘I can’t. My late husband loved them.’”
The master of conservation has traveled the world to save art of all types. He monitored conservation work at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, and trained personnel at 14 museums in the Orient, including the National Palace Museum.
Gordon Lewis had a hand in saving a portrait of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post that still hangs at the Bath & Tennis Club in Palm Beach. He said he urged the club to repair the 1952 work by British artist Frank Salisbury that was damaged in a hurricane. “They didn’t want to; they said there wasn’t enough value.” So he researched the painter and found that Salisbury had not only created a portrait of Winston Churchill that sold for “an astronomical price,” but had also won a prestigious award. Club officials reconsidered and hired Gordon to repair the painting.
Becoming an Art Conservationist
Art conservation would certainly be sufficient for one career, but it is actually Gordon’s second. The native of Hagerstown, Md. graduated from college at 26 and joined a management consulting firm. He reached the zenith in that occupation by age 33. While collecting pre-Colombian pieces, he took a fancy to restoration – at a time when art conservation was coming into its own. “I said, ‘Let’s create a small group of people with various capacities for this type of work.’” That gave birth to his business.
Gordon established his firm in New York, but moved south 17 years ago after marrying Laney, whose parents lived in Cape Coral, Florida. He and his staff still go north when necessary. The former rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, contacted the conservancy in Florida to create a chapel at the famed New York church. “I told my people they had to understand every nuance of the work because Monsignor Clark was referred to us by my good friend and an extraordinary man, Dr. Walter Persegati,” says Gordon. “I met Dr. Persegati while working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was secretary/treasurer of Vatican City Museums. He reported to – and only to – the Pope. So, I said, if we screw this up, we are all going to fry in hell forever!”
While working on a masterpiece, Gordon said he feels he’s in “the presence of greatness. You feel a kinship to the artist and the painting. You know that painting better than anyone – except the artist.” He admits he has called clients and said, “Can you leave it here another couple of weeks? I am having trouble letting go.” But letting go he must as the next piece arrives and Gordon takes on the role of art conservationist once again.