Only 5% of the world’s artworks will survive the next 100 years according to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. These are rather sobering thoughts and a reminder that conservation and collection care are inherent aspects of owning art. Artworks are very valuable assets. When not cared for properly, their longevity and future value may be affected negatively.
Conservation is as much about preventive care as it is about restoration when damage occurs. Prevention is key and there are some golden rules that collectors can follow, particularly when handling and installing art. It is estimated that 85% of damage to artworks happen during transit. Proper wrapping and stacking are absolutely critical. The use of bubble wrap for protection is good, but not without a layer of acid free tissue paper between the plastic and the artwork. It is important that the bubbles face outwards too because when a bubble pops, released chemicals may leave marks on the artwork surface.
Special care is also required when stacking two-dimensional pieces in transit or in storage. They must be stacked face to face and back to back and with works of similar dimensions to avoid that a smaller frame leans on the glass of a larger one. This is a simple way to prevent damage such as tear in a canvas or breakage of glass.
Light, heat and humidity are an artwork’s worst enemies. So are pollution and pest. While it is unrealistic to expect museum conditions in a private home, there are a few things that collectors can do to best preserve valuable art. Artworks should not be exposed to direct sunlight while artificial lighting should be used cautiously. Fluorescent bulbs produce harmful ultraviolet radiation and incandescent light can cause fading. Lamps should never point directly at art and if using individual picture lighting (which we generally advise against), they should not exceed 25 watts. Fading and discoloration are unfortunately processes that can never be reversed.
Room temperature should ideally remain constant and fluctuations should be kept at a minimum. As an indication, museums set the ambient range between 20 and 22°C and regulate humidity levels at 50%. Humidity stresses works of art through contraction and expansion and can accelerate the growth of micro-organisms. But its most detrimental effect is the generation of carbonic acid to which works on paper are particularly vulnerable. The results are discoloration and so-called foxing marks.
Foxing refers to the rust coloured stains that appear on old paper. Nowadays, the use of acid-free board to frame art on paper is a crucial measure against this type of deterioration and reputable framers only use these museum standard materials.
Collectors should also keep in mind when deciding where to hang certain pieces that paintings, especially oils on canvas, are sturdier than works on paper and that photography is particularly fragile. It is indeed estimated that photography constitutes 40% of contemporary art insurance claims.
Today artists use a range of materials traditionally not intended for making art, such as industrial materials and found objects, but unconventional substances too like dust, blood or dung (the British painter and Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili is best known for his paintings using elephant dung). These new materials are unstable at best and their care poses unprecedented challenges.
The trend in conservation today is to preserve an artwork as close as possible to the state intended by the artist. Poorly qualified specialists gave restoration a bad reputation due to heavy-handed interventions that were altering artworks beyond their original state. As a result, artists can exercise their droit moral (moral rights) over their art. They can disown an art piece that has been overtly modified. Excessive over-painting used to be very popular, however, unwittingly these actions highlight over time the different aging processes between the new and the original paint. Imperceptible and reversible restorations have become the holy grail and today the most common conservation is cleaning with a minimal of retouching when necessary.
But now, what can a collector do when an artwork does get damaged? It is certainly justified to resort to restoration to save the artwork for posterity. However, art owners should choose carefully who they entrust their art with and bear in mind that poor remedial treatment can impact negatively on the resale value of a piece of art.
Common interventions include the consolidation of flaking in paintings, as well as the removal of surface dirt and yellowing varnish. Damage in transit, such as a perforated canvas, can be repaired with thin surgical needles and thread without leaving any visible scars. Severed threads can also be glued together one by one with the use of a microscope to magnify the work area.
Foxing and water damage can be successfully removed with oxidizing techniques and bore worm damage to frames, can be contained by fumigation or by injecting special chemicals into the bore holes. Smoke and minimal fire damage can be cleaned up too.
Conservators require an in-depth knowledge of art history and they have to be proficient in various art practices such as painting. But today they also need an extensive knowledge of science and chemistry. Modern conservation involves the use of scientific techniques like infrared and ultraviolet methods, as well as X-rays and laser to analyse the condition of artworks before performing restorations. In fact, Modern Art Conservation, an art restoration service in New York, partnered with NASA who, while studying atomic oxygen damage to aircrafts, came upon a solution to remove soot and other organic stains without damage to paint.
With artists increasingly using a range of nontraditional materials, conservators have to update their knowledge and methods constantly to meet ever evolving demands. Some conservators work closely with artists to help them develop innovative solutions and quality materials that can stand the test of time.
German conservator Ekkehard Hans, who now practices his trade in South Africa, remembers vividly a situation back in Hamburg when he had to restore a work by Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri. It consisted of a table with dishes, a half empty box of cigarettes, a table cloth covered with spilled coffee powder and a red wine stain. The purpose was to clean this tableau but to preserve the coffee grounds and the red wine mark!