Art Counsel

Collections information specialists

Restoration – Oil Painting Horror story

So I used to know this guy… Ok I still know him, but I’m kinda hoping that he won’t see this post…  Alright I AM hoping that he sees this post, and ultimately that he will lay off a bit and improve his method, but I’m hoping that he doesn’t recognize me in this anonymous post.  He’s cool.  I’d like to stay friends.

Anyway, he is a professional preservationist/restorer of paintings, but he has a bad habit of over-cleaning.  Luckily, he takes many photos while working, so we have records for posterity, but that is cold comfort for curators, archivists and the occasional researcher.  And the average viewer of his overdone restorations might see, unfortunately, is a blanched shadow of what it should be.  I fear that most of his work is going to deteriorate due to overexposure to chemicals and overstripping.

The restoration that most horrified me was a portrait of a 19th century gentleman – frock-coated, standing, by a lesser known artist.  At some point he discovered that this image was an overpainting of a previous portrait of a military man.  If I remember correctly the uniform was British, possibly from the Crimean war.  Rather than doing a bit of research to find out why it was overpainted, taking infrareds (or whatever) to gain an image of the underpainting before proceeding.  He sales-pitched a complete strip of the top layer to the owner.  Why? I can only speculate.  And if I did not know this guy, I would have to assume (from previous experience with restorers of many stripes) that he wanted more work so he could make more money.  In this case it was probably excitement and lack of experience along with a lack of guidance (one of his first jobs starting his own business – so no one to say, “whoa!  we need to think of posterity.  This is not an excavation, but a gentle cleaning”).

For all I know there may have been a good reason to strip the top painting, but this was never explored and now the top portrait is gone forever without proper documentation and possibly with material damage to the work.

Moral:  If you need something restored, don’t let anyone bully you into doing more than you asked.   Better yet, do the proper research before you hire someone so you are not caught out by something unexpected.  And when the unexpected comes a knocking, stop the restoration until you have had a second opinion, or better yet seven or eight opinions by experts with many years experience before doing anything drastic.

Related link: Understanding the Art Market: Condition, Restoration and Conservation by artforprofits

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