The Art of Saving Art

Ben Umberger’s seen it all. From an impressive collection of PEZ dispensers to art dating back hundreds of years, Umberger and his team at Carolina Conservation — a fine art conservation company for the insurance restoration industry and private clients — have spent the last 15 years saving valuable content from disaster.

“We cover everything from the evaluation to the treatment, storage, delivery, and installation,” says Umberger, managing partner at Carolina Conservation. “We do it all.”

But time and time again, Umberger says he’s faced with an interesting problem. After a disastrous event like a fire or a flood, a restoration company encounters something valuable that needs specialized cleaning. With good intentions, they attempt to clean the item only to discover they’ve ruined it. Worried, they contact Umberger and his team and discover if they had just made the call sooner, they could have saved themselves a lot of time and money.

“We get calls all the time from contractors saying, ‘We tried to clean this and all the paint came off,’” Umberger says. “They end up costing themselves money and the relationship they had with their customers.”

LEAVE IT TO THE SPECIALISTS

Many people don’t know how much time, energy, and expertise it takes to clean and/or repair a specialty item — especially when it’s been damaged. Umberger says most restoration companies are not acting maliciously when they try to clean a custom piece.

Unfortunately, they end up doing more harm than good.

Umberger points to a recent example. A fire broke out at a family home on the East Coast. Inside was a 100-plus-year-old portrait of a family member as a child, something of both monetary and sentimental value. It laid in an ornate gold frame, encased by the glass, and was spared by the fire. A restoration company came in to assess the damage and clean it up. One intrepid employee took the painting, believing he could clean it up and renew it as a special surprise for the family. But as he opened up the glass and leaned over it, a bead of sweat dripped from his brow and straight onto the painting, slightly smearing the paint. “The guy panics and he grabs a compressed air gun and he hits this thing with 30-40 psi and blows a hole right in the face,” Umberger says. “It should’ve been a $150 job. But by the time they got done with it, it was $1,100 to fix.” Just like restoration officials are the people called after a flood or fire to fix a home, experts like conservators should be called to deal with specialty items. They are the ones who can assess the damage and start taking steps to fix it. Art conservation is a bit of a misnomer. While some conservators specialize in preserving and analyzing artifacts such as paintings, books, or textiles, a large portion of them specialize in cleaning and restoring them, too.

In-process and post-treatment photos show the dramatic transformation of a portrait that has undergone extensive structural repair to consolidate loose and flaking paint. Facing (seen as white patches) has been temporarily applied to secure areas at risk for additional paint loss.

Extensive examination during treatment allows conservators to monitor how works are responding to cleaning and repair.

When a restoration company comes across a valuable piece of any kind, the first thought isn’t always to call a conservator — for many reasons.

What makes a conservator unique is a way they approach the cleaning. Quality conservators have specialized degrees and years of experience examining the proper cleaning methods. They determine the chemical compounds on an item — from the type of varnish on a painting to the material on it that needs to be cleaned — and develop a specific action plan for each item.

Before and after photos of a fire-damaged oil painting depicting a client’s childhood home.

Water damage caused severe blooming, seen as a blotchy white haze in this painting’s varnish layer. The damage was reversed by reforming the varnish so that the original varnish layer did not have to be removed.

Before and after: Tear repair and stabilization for a Revolutionary War-era land deed.

Before and after: Carved ivory funerary urns damaged by heavy soot layer

You need a solid understanding of the materials present so you can figure out what your treatment is going to be.

“When you’re looking at restoration specifically, you’re looking at it from a science perspective,” Umberger says. “You need a solid understanding of the materials present so you can figure out what your treatment is going to be.”

From there, they use extremely precise methods to repair and/or restore the art to its original glory, oftentimes using state-of-the-art technology and specialized training.

GETTING THE RIGHT RESOURCES

When a restoration company comes across a valuable piece of any kind, the first thought isn’t always to call a conservator — for many reasons.

The first — and most obvious — is that restoration companies simply don’t realize the value of the contents. When they enter a project, they see it as a total job from the floors to the ceiling. They get into the job and encounter different types of content, some of which can be valuable or sensitive materials (like art). Someone who is untrained might simply take the item and attempt to clean it themselves.

Umberger says the fix for this is simple. Restoration companies need to retrain their brains to look at a job in segments. They need to ask themselves before jumping in: Are there any contents in here that might need special consideration? They should also connect with the homeowner and/or insurance adjuster to see if there’s anything of sentimental value that is at risk of being damaged further.

A sampling of common hand tools and solutions used by conservators.

Textile conservation and washing of flag with historical value.

Reversal of a previously botched restoration attempt included varnish and overpaint removal. In the area above the swab, a hidden face in the background is starting to be revealed.

“The handling of those items is critical,” he says. “It’s important to be able to identify what is important and finding someone that’s capable of taking care of them in the correct way.” Another reason, though, is a little bit more complex. The art world can have a bit of a prickly reputation, Umberger says, and for someone who is not a part of that world, navigating whom to call can be confusing and intimidating.

“You can talk to five different people in the art world and you’re going to get five different attitudes and personalities,” Umberger says. “Some are extremely willing to help you and answer questions, but others might be skeptical.”

A good conservation job is worth its weight in gold if it’s done correctly … And when they’re done, they create a very satisfied customer. Umberger says companies should approach it as if they were hiring any other type of contractor. He says they shouldn’t always go for the first choice. They need to ask questions, look for qualifications (like degrees and certifications among staff) and meet with conservators before disaster strikes.

Equipped with little knowledge, a restoration company might turn to the wrong source — or one that turns them off from attempting to find another. If they call a frame shop, for instance, they might be passed around to different companies that might not have direct experience with disaster conservation. Or they might be connected to a company that doesn’t have all the qualifications. Or if they call an art gallery, they might encounter someone who is unwilling to help them because of their lack of understanding.

Umberger says companies should approach it as if they were hiring any other type of contractor. He says they shouldn’t always go for the first choice. They need to ask questions, look for qualifications (like degrees and certifications among staff) and meet with conservators before disaster strikes. But if they do find themselves in a jam, he recommends resources like the American Institute for Conservation.

“You want to establish a relationship before you need them,” he says. “You don’t want to have the first time meeting this person be when they’re showing up at a job site.”

THE VALUE OF PROPER CONSERVATION

A good conservation job is worth its weight in gold if it’s done correctly. Most jobs are much more affordable than people think, Umberger says. And when they’re done, they create a very satisfied customer.

When a restoration company can help facilitate the restoration of an art collection worth thousands — or millions — after a disaster, the customer won’t soon forget it. While the conservators take great pride in being the ones to do the work, Umberger says it’s the restoration company that looks like the hero for knowing the right thing to do.

“When someone takes things outside their wheelhouse to the experts and it turns out well, it makes the restoration company look good,” he says. “If they can take care of someone’s million-dollar art collection, they’ve just gained a customer for life.” RIA

Frame and gilding repairs being performed on a frame from an Italian Renaissance painting circa 1510. The frame construction and joins indicate that it is a newer replacement and is likely only 150-200 years old.

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