Magazine article Art Business News

The Co$t of Conservation & Restoration: How Do Conservators Restore Damaged Art Works, What Does It Cost, and How Does It Impact Value?

Magazine article Art Business News

The Co$t of Conservation & Restoration: How Do Conservators Restore Damaged Art Works, What Does It Cost, and How Does It Impact Value?

Article excerpt

Imagine walking through a beautiful exhibit of famous paintings at a museum. You look closely at a Picasso and lean forward in admiration. Suddenly, you lose your balance and, without thinking, latch onto the painting to catch your fall. Whoops. You've left a fist-sized hole in a million-dollar painting.

It may sound impossible, but it happens more often than you think. This year, a 12-year-old Taiwanese boy tripped and accidentally punched a hole in a $1.5 million Paolo Porpora oil on canvas. His accident is one of many unfortunate slip-ups to damage expensive works of art. In some cases, people purposely damage artwork. In 1990, a man sprayed sulfuric acid on Rembrandt van Rijn's "The Night Watch." This action was the third time someone purposely damaged Rembrandt's famous work; vandals with knives slashed it in 1911 and 1975.

In the case of the Porpora painting, the boy's family did not have to pay for the damages. Fortunately, the painting was insured and is currently undergoing restoration. But who spends the time and money to fix these valuable artworks when accidents happen? How much does it cost, and what does insurance cover? More important, how does one fix a painting with a hole in the middle of it, and does the artwork lose value due to the damages?

Enter the art conservator, the quiet hero who spends countless hours performing delicate work to restore and conserve damaged pieces of art.


Though people often refer to conservation and restoration as one entity, they have a few distinctions. Conservation is the profession and the starting point for a conservator, whereas restoration describes parts of the process.

Beyond conserving the original materials, conservators consider the restoration side of their practice to encompass areas requiring fillers, colors, or coatings to reconstitute a missing component of the art. The process is tedious and an art form in itself. Art conservators see variations of damage, but they all fall into one of two categories: structural or aesthetic.

Structural damage might be the result of storage in an improper environment, the deterioration of materials, or poor handling practices. Human intervention falls into this realm and is a top contender for what causes the most damage to art. Aesthetic or cosmetic damages are due to the fact that the artwork has old varnishes, causing discoloration, or has paint flaking off the surface.

Conservators also experience inherent vice, a problem that occurs when the material the artist used is not compatible with the coatings an art conservator uses in restoration. This problem occurs most often with works of modern and con temporary art, because such artists use experimental acrylics, which are more sensitive than oils.

"[Contemporary artists] are creating multimedia works of art, and those are naturally harder to care for than a traditional painting," says Ana Alba, an independent art conservator in Pittsburgh and founder and owner of Alba Art Conservation. "But our code of ethics is to use most things that are reversible because we can't change the artist s intent or chosen materials. However, I have treated cardboard before, and no one should expect that to last a thousand years."


Museums have access to technical equipment that independent conservators lack, according to Rhona MacBeth, a conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For example, museums have X-ray machines, which allow conservators to look below the surface of paintings to document their condition and quality. Infrared cameras can cost $50,000 to $100,000, but conservators can also perform repairs with SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras that cost approximately $1,000.

"In a big museum like the MFA, we have a huge scientific department that can do an analysis of coatings to see how [a painting] was made," explains MacBeth. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.