Tips For Fine Art Collectors

Caring for Your Fine Art Collection

Virginia Panizzon working in the art conservation lab.

Virginia Panizzon working in the art conservation lab.

I’m not sure I agree with the theoretical statistic that “only 5% of the world’s artworks will survive the next 100 years,” according to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. But conservation and collection care are certainly inherent aspects of owning art.

Another statistic that I don’t agree with is “that it is estimated that 85% of damage to artworks happens during transit.” This may be a factor with contemporary art was it is shown, sold and hauled all over the place but it doesn’t ring true for the overall art work to me. So, it seems this article is more inspired by contemporary art.

But we do see, in our art conservation laboratory a lot of damage to paintings, across the board, from poor handling, shipping, storage and “vandalism.”

Art conservation is as much about preventative care as it is about restoration no matter what the age. When avoid damage there are some golden rules collectors can follow, particularly when handling and installing art.

With all works of art, proper wrapping and stacking are critical, and while the use of bubble-wrap is good, there must be a layer of acid-free tissue paper between the plastic and the artwork. I can tell you how many times I’ve seen the imprint of the bubblewrap cells on the artwork after storage for a short time. Also, it is important the bubbles face outwards because if one pops the chemicals released may leave marks on the artwork’s surface.

Special care is also required when stacking two-dimensional pieces. They must be face to face and back to back and with works of similar dimensions so that a smaller frame does not lean on the glass or the canvas of a larger one. This is a simple way to prevent damage such as tear in a canvas or breakage of glass. Easy release tape on glass is a great idea.

Light, heat and humidity are an artwork’s worst enemies, as are pollution and pests. While it is unrealistic to expect museum conditions in a private home, there are a few things collectors can do to best preserve art.

A quick real life example: we had a very nice painting in the lab for a cleaning only. Otherwise, this oil on canvas was a perfect condition. A few years later I paid a visit to the home of the art collector and noticed the painting hanging on the wall, CRACKED TO SMITHERENES as if it were 200 years old! I was flabergasted. What could have happened?!?! It was on an interior hallway wall, no direct sun… and then I noticed that the artwork had been hung directly under an air-conditioning and heating vent. Wide variations in heat and cold has artificially aged the painting!!! The cracking patterns looked exactly like an old painting. Wow, what a first class lesson.

Room temperature should ideally remain constant. As an indication, museums set the ambient range between 20°C and 22°C and regulate humidity levels at 50%. Humidity stresses works of art through contraction and expansion and can accelerate the growth of micro-organisms. But its most detrimental effect is the generation of carbonic acid to which works on paper are particularly vulnerable. The results are discolouration and foxing marks.

Fading and discolouration can never be reversed.

Foxing refers to the rust-coloured stains that appear on old paper. Nowadays, the use of acid-free board to frame art is a crucial measure against this type of deterioration.

When it comes to hanging, collectors should be aware that paintings, especially oils on canvas, are sturdier than works on paper and that photography is fragile. It is estimated that photography constitutes 40% of art insurance claims… but I’m not sure I agree with this stat either.

Today artists use a range of materials traditionally not intended for making art, such as industrial materials and found objects, but also unconventional substances such as dust, blood or dung (the Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili is best known for his paintings using elephant dung). These materials are unstable at best and their care poses unprecedented challenges.

Altered artworks 

The trend in conservation today is to preserve an artwork as close as possible to the state intended by the artist. Historically, poorly qualified craftsmen gave restoration a bad reputation due to heavy-handed interventions that altered artworks beyond their original state.

The Before Restoration photo is on the left!!  After Restoration by a heavy handed Russian restorer in the LA area... the client was devastated.

The Before Restoration photo is on the left!! After Restoration by a heavy handed Russian restorer in the LA area… the client was devastated.


Artists can exercise their droit moral (moral rights) over their art. They can disown an art piece that has been overtly modified. Excessive overpainting used to be very popular, but unwittingly highlights over time the different ageing processes between the new and the original paint.

Imperceptible and reversible restorations have become the holy grail and the most common conservation is cleaning with minimal retouching when necessary.

If an artwork is damaged, it is justified to resort to restoration to save it for posterity. However, art owners should choose carefully who they entrust their art to and bear in mind that poor remedial treatment can negatively affect the resale value.

Common interventions include the consolidation of flaking in paintings and the removal of surface dirt and yellowing varnish. Damage in transit, such as a perforated canvas, can be repaired with thin surgical needles and thread without leaving any visible scars. Severed threads can be glued together one by one with the use of a microscope to magnify the work area.

Foxing and water damage can be successfully removed with oxidising techniques and bore worm damage to frames can be contained by fumigation or by injecting special chemicals into the bore holes. Smoke and minimal fire damage can be cleaned up too.

Art conservators require an in-depth knowledge of art history and have to be proficient in various art practices, such as painting. But they also need an extensive knowledge of science and chemistry.

Modern conservation involves the use of scientific techniques such as infrared and ultraviolet methods, as well as X-rays and laser to analyse the condition of works before embarking on restoration.

With artists increasingly using a range of nontraditional materials, conservators have to constantly update their knowledge and methods to meet ever evolving demands.

Some art conservators work closely with contemporary artists to help them develop innovative solutions and quality materials that can stand the test of time.

• Scott Haskins has been in the field of professional conservation since 1975.

Scott M. Haskins Lining a 30 ft painting by Buck Winn

Scott M. Haskins Lining a 30 ft painting by Buck Winn

Questions? Call Scott M. Haskins, Virginia Panizzon, Oriana Montemurro Art Conservators 805 564 3438

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