Art Restoration for Damaged Works: It's All About Conservation

The goal of conservation is to optimize the art’s value after repair and ensure it lasts well into the future.

Fortunately few art collectors experience firsthand the wide-scale devastation of a natural disaster like a hurricane. Fires, water leaks and other household accidents are more common but can still severely damage cherished artwork, says Heather Becker, founder and CEO of The Conservation Center.

“Triage is one of the most important parts of recovery,” says Becker, who oversaw the art relief efforts following both Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “Until people have experienced it, they don’t see the positive outcome that triage can do even prior to something being conserved.”

Emergency on-the-spot treatment, or triaging, can determine how urgently each piece needs attention.

Whether it’s art conservation, professionals operating relief centers in hurricane-ravaged areas or one expert evaluating a piece damaged in a home, preservation through conservation helps optimize the post-repair value of the piece and heightens the likelihood that its beauty will be enjoyed long into the future.

“It’s important for the art collector to ask questions throughout the conservation process, whether they’re talking to their insurance company, a conservator or other art professional. It can raise their level of education,” says Christiane Fischer, CEO of the Americas region for specialty insurer AXA ART. “They will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for what it means to take care of an art object.”

As part of the educational effort, Becker and Fischer shared insights into the value of conservation.

Wealth: Are conservation and restoration the same thing?

Becker: No. There are two main differences: the way professionals are trained and the impact of their work. Conservators generally have considerably more training than restorers. Many conservators have post-graduate degrees with a strong chemistry component, and they keep current with recent advances in the field in regard to materials and techniques.

Such knowledge and continued education contribute to the impact of a conservator’s work, which ideally may be reversed in five, 50 or 200 years, if methods and treatments are appropriate. A conservator also will establish an ethical buffer between the hand of the artist and the hand of the conservator, so the original creation is still accessible. One of the basic maxims of conservation is reversibility: What the conservator has done can be undone.

Conversely, without advanced technical training, restorers may use techniques that are nonreversible. Therefore, they may be permanently affecting the piece, modifying how it can be treated in the future and potentially negatively impacting its value.

Fischer: Both conservation and restoration have their place. Each object should be individually evaluated to determine the most appropriate treatment. From the insurer’s point of view, conservation work is almost always preferable for higher valued objects as it maintains the piece’s authenticity and tends to enhance the long-term value of the work.

Conservation is usually more expensive because of the research and time-consuming methodology used to preserve the artwork. As a result, people often choose the lower-price alternative for lesser valued works that are not to be considered for future re-sale. Defaulting to the lower-price treatment when it is not the most appropriate one is not a good strategy.

The good news for collectors is that either conservation or restoration is generally covered by insurance, so it’s important to work with the insurer to get the best treatment for the work and not just a quick fix.

Wealth: How does a preserved piece of art reflect a conservation effort?

Becker: The premise of conservation is honoring the artist’s intent while stabilizing the piece for future generations to enjoy — but using techniques and methods that are noninvasive, if possible.

For example, to preserve a painting with some losses, a conservator would apply a varnish layer and then conservation paints, materials that may be removed in the future to return to the original work. Conversely, a restorer might paint directly on the original without creating an ethical buffer, and might even use oil paints on top of oil paints, which cannot be removed like conservation paints can.

Or consider a frame with some erosion in its gilding. A conservator will only repair or replace the gilding in the affected areas. A restorer may consider re-gilding an entire section of the frame because it’s easier to do and requires less time and exactness.

Wealth: What role can an insurer play in preserving a piece of damaged art?

Fischer: First, we can be valuable partners in helping prevent losses and damage. At AXA ART, we have a worldwide network of conservators, packers, shippers and appraisers that we trust to care for the art and our customers.

Second, when something does happen, we work closely with our clients to keep them informed while orchestrating the entire claim process: assessing the damage, discussing the matter with brokers, approaching conservators, analyzing treatment proposals, selecting the best proposal and connecting with any other experts. Ultimately, it’s important for us that the treatment is done to the optimal level, so the work keeps as much of its value as possible.

Becker: As a conservation lab, we know when we work with an insurance company we are one of many service providers in the process. What I value in the relationship is effective communication — a strong trust and rapport with the insurer — and a good sense of timing of the process. I want to know that everyone is working toward saving these pieces for their future enjoyment, and we’re supporting the owner as stewards of the work.

Wealth: What proactive measures should owners take with art?

Becker: We encourage collectors to have a conservator regularly survey their collections. The conservator can assess how pieces are aging and possibly deteriorating at different rates because of different materials, exposures and conditions or the way a piece is displayed or stored. That also helps with knowing when a piece needs cleaning or urgent attention. It’s amazing how stable works of art can be. Just look at how many are centuries old and in fantastic condition. Others tend to deteriorate a lot faster, so it’s really on a case-by-case basis.

Fischer: I’m pleased that the traditional display in the old days — in a smoking room with a fireplace — isn’t as common today. Ultimately, the care depends on the fragility of the materials used in creating the work — we’ve seen art made out of plastic, chocolate and beeswax — and the environment in which it’s exposed.

Becker: One common problem area is framing. If a piece itself is hinged inside a frame, and that framing work was done 15 years ago, the materials may likely have become brittle and acidic. Or the glazing may not have adequate ultraviolet light filtering. It may be in a good spot in a home, but those subtleties are important to the long-term protection of the piece.

Wealth: Should conservation efforts only be pursued with valuable artwork?

Fischer: It’s an individual decision. We see people who are willing to spend money on conservation because the artwork has an emotional value to them. Others don’t really care what happens to the piece. Still some see it purely as an investment, and they weigh whether conservation will help them reap the investment return they expect.

Becker: It’s important that people know and pursue what’s best for the object but also what’s best for the story or historical context: why these works exist. Conservators see this every day. People bring in items that have no market value but have incredibly important stories behind them. The work of art tells that story. That’s what they appreciate about the piece, and that’s what we’re there to preserve.