What Every Collector Needs to Know About Art Conservators

Artwork Archive | February 1, 2016 (Updated April 12, 2021)

Image credit: Barbara Mosher

Conservators Work Under Strict Guidelines

Laura Goodman, conservator and owner of Paper Care Studio, began her career in print advertising. “I realized that a lot of the skills I had from early [advertising] agency days, pre-computer, were the same skills needed for paper conservation,” she explains.

A master of all types of inks and paper, she went back to school to take classes like organic chemistry and trigonometry to fulfill her prerequisites. She was eventually accepted into the conservation program at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England. “It was pretty rigorous training,” she remembers. Goodman is currently an art conservator, working strictly with paper.

With Their Skills, Conservators Help Preserve Precious Collectibles

One of the first clients Goodman worked with brought her a very small piece of paper that had been folded, unfolded, and folded again many times. It was a small Stagecoach bus ticket from when his great grandfather first came to the United States. “It’s gratifying to be able to work on something that means so much to someone,” Goodman says. From old bus passes, yellowing maps, and ancient masterpieces, everything can be saved, and possibly revived, when a conservator is brought into the picture.

We spoke with Goodman about what she wishes all art collectors knew when working with conservators:

1. Conservators Aim to Stabilize the Damage

Conservators operate on the principle that their changes may need to be reversed in the future, in response to the constantly changing technology. “We try and do things that are reversible because we know going into the future technology will change,” Goodman confirms. If a conservator is working on the piece later down the line, they shouldn’t have to risk damaging it if they need to reverse a repair.

Conservators are guided by principles created by the American Institute of Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works. “A conservator’s main goal is to stabilize an object to halt degradation and ensure that the piece can go into the future strengthened,” Goodman says. The original appearance does not guide a conservator’s repairs, but how to stop any deterioration or aging. 

2. Some Insurance Policies Will Cover a Conservator’s Cost

If a piece of artwork is damaged, in the awful scenario of flood, fire, or poor framing for instance, your insurance company should be involved. The documentation you have stored in your Artwork Archive account is the first step to getting your papers ready to file a claim.

Second, your conservator can create a condition report recording the damage and the necessary repairs, as well as an estimate. “Many times people don’t realize they can get their insurance companies to pay for damage,” Goodman notes. “I’m often hired to write condition reports along with an estimate that’s submitted to an insurance company.”

3. Conservators’ Estimates Are Based on Technique and Labor

A piece of art could be worth $1 or $1,000,000 and yield the same estimate based on an equal amount of work. Goodman creates her estimates based on materials, labor, research, condition, size, and the work that needs to be done on that particular piece. “One of the things I’d like art collectors to understand is the price of the original artwork is not a factor in the estimate I give,” Goodman clarifies.

In some cases, her clients will want to know the value of the piece to justify the cost of the estimate. If you are looking to have a professional opinion on the value of a piece, the person to work with is an appraiser. You can learn more about working with appraisers from our article here. “I can’t answer whether it’s worth spending the money on something to restore it, that’s not ethically something I can advise on.”

4. Conservators Make Both Invisible and Visible Repairs

Each repair is based on the piece and the situation. “Sometimes repairs are made to be as invisible as possible, and other times they are not,” Goodman says. She brings up the example of when a piece of pottery is on display in a museum and it has clearly been broken before. Some pieces are aged and others look brand new. This is a case when a conservator was not trying to hide the repairs, but bring the piece back to life as best they could.

Goodman uses Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to repair tears in paper. “It will hold over many, many years, but it’s removable with water,” she explains. This is an example of an invisible repair. Whether a repair is visible or invisible might be decided based on the condition of the piece, or it may be decided by the client.

5. Conservators Cannot Affect the Signature of a Work

It is an ethical standard that a conservator never touches the signature on any artwork. “Let’s say you have a print signed by Andy Warhol,” Goodman suggests. The piece could have been framed in a way that covered his signature, and now, you can barely see it. “Ethically, you’re never supposed to fill in or embellish a signature.” Goodman has experience working with documents signed by George Washington.

In cases like this, there are techniques to protect a signature. This is the only process a conservator can use in that situation. In any scenario, a conservator can never add to or embellish a signature.

6. Conservators Can Fix Most Poor Framing

“The biggest amount of damage I work on is improper framing,” Goodman says. It’s not uncommon for art to be framed with incorrect tape and acidic board. Improper tapes can cause tearing and other damage. Acidic board and framing materials will cause the work to yellow and darken with age. If you want to learn more about the importance of acid-free paper and archival materials, read this article.

One of the other common projects for a conservator is when acidic paper becomes darker. “If you have a black and white print of your grandmother’s and she smoked, you might be used to seeing the paper as a yellow or brown tint,” Goodman illustrates. “This can be removed, and the paper can be made brighter.” In some cases, the art has been hanging on the wall so long that the owner doesn’t see the damage or degradation over time.

Another improper framing technique is if any artwork has been dry mounted in the framing process. This is most common with photographs and can really cause problems. The process flattens the artwork on a board using heat. It is incredibly difficult to be removed and has to be done ⅛ of an inch at a time. If you had an old map, for instance, dry mounted onto acidic board and you wanted to treat the map for yellowing, it would have to be removed before treatment. Although to remove artwork from a foam board after dry mounting is an expensive process, it is necessary to slow the aging of your piece.

7. Conservators Can Help With Fire and Water Damage

In some cases, Goodman is called for a home-visit after a fire or a flood. She will visit the site to asses the damage, make condition reports, and give estimates. These reports can be sent to your insurance company to cover the repairs, as well as stored in your Artwork Archive account. Fire and water damage are ticking time bombs. The faster you can bring them to a conservator, the better. “With any kind of smoke, fire, or water damage, the sooner it’s brought in the better chance there is to recover it,” Goodman stresses.

Types of water and fire damage can vary. Water can cause mold to grow on artwork. Mold can be eradicated, whether it’s alive or dead. Water can also cause photos to stick to the glass inside a frame, this is a situation a conservator can fix. “Many times people come across something they think is in terrible shape,” Goodman says. “Have a professional look at it before you give up.”

Conservation is a Unique Art

Conservators are the chemists of the art world. Goodman is a master of not only the craft, but the emotion behind her projects. She’s personally invested in the art that she works on, and plans on staying in the business as long as humanly possible. “The history of what people bring in is often very fascinating to me,” she says, “I’d like to be doing this until I’m blind.”

Take steps to stop aging and degradation before you need help from a conservator. Learn how to properly store your artwork or start a storage unit at home with tips in our free e-book, Essential Guide to Collecting Art.

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