Most visitors to museums, galleries, or private collections view the art being displayed in presentation ready condition. For historical art, this usually means that somewhere along the way a trip to the conservator was necessary. Few artworks spend their existence in hermetically sealed bubbles, therefore the ravages of time can create considerable issues and challenges for conservators. The skilled hands and encyclopedic knowledge of a conservator are what can make a work of art look superb. In our experience conservators are like restaurants – you can find quick and cheap ones, exclusive and expensive ones, or ones that fall somewhere in between.
One determining factor we have when considering the purchase of a work is its condition. We love to acquire pieces which are "deliciously dirty". By this we mean works that are basically in an untouched state – they have never been worked on by a mediocre conservator or, yikes, even worse by grandma's brillo pad. Artworks in this unconserved state are desirable because we are able to turn them over to a highly skilled conservation team, and not have to worry about any previous efforts which might have done more harm than good. Over the years we've seen our fair share of artworks that are in sad states of disrepair as well as ones with unfixable issues. In many cases the owners are unaware of these condition issues and how they can potentially affect value.
One memorable work we acquired in a "deliciously dirty" state was a painting by the American artist John Leslie Breck. It was probably the dirtiest painting we've ever seen, which made the transformation breathtaking. Everything about the work was exciting – from the untouched condition of the canvas to the original frame to the important labels verso. When we removed the work from its frame (which also needed conservation due to losses and an uneven finish) we saw what time had accomplished. The edge of the work, protected under the frame, hinted at the original look. The contrast between the frame covered portion of the surface and the main area which had been exposed to air was dramatic.
Our conservator joked that the global Q-tip supply was diminished by 50% during the cleaning of this painting. One of the conservator's jobs is to determine which cleaning solution will be most effective, while at the same time not OVER cleaning. This knowledge, along with the experience and training which allow their understanding and appropriate application, are what separates the good, better, and best conservators. If you think of a painting as the patient, then a conservator is its physician. Cautionary tales abound regarding "botched" restorations, click here to see one of the scariest.
Museums have long been leaders in the field of conservation and restoration. They are the custodians of countless precious objects, so the fit is natural. One of the most prestigious is The Museum of Modern Art's Department of Conservation, which was established in 1958 as the result of a devastating fire. The case study projects are fascinating, with great video clips which bring you behind closed doors. Their Jackson Pollock video is not to be missed!
If you own a family heirloom, we suggest you make sure any conservation work is performed by a highly trained professional. You never get a second chance to have conservation done correctly. Before selecting someone to work with consult a trusted source for recommendations (a collector, local museum or well established gallery). There are different conservation professionals who have various areas expertise – oil paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and frames. It is important to get conservation work done by someone who understands your particular artwork.
Another of our favored transformations done on a painting by F.H. Shapleigh done in 1889 depicting the Plaza Basin in St. Augustine, Florida. Once again, an epic amount of Q-tips and expertise culminated in a fantastic transformation.