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Bugs with an Eye for Art: Insects Can Destroy Art and Antique Treasures

by priceminer (07/28/09).

Damage done by insects to the frame and stretcher of an oil painting.

Damage done by insects to the frame and stretcher of an oil painting.

I have had customers come to me with oil painting on which they recently noticed small holes developing near the edges of the canvas and also found small piles of wood dust on the floor under the paintings. They took the paintings off the wall and discovered that the back of the frames and stretchers had been eaten by some type of insect or termite.

Some household insects are attracted to organic (non-living) materials that are commonly used to create furniture, paintings, works on paper and sculpture. These pests can easily enter your home and feed on wood, glue, paper, linen, wool, cotton, leather, horn and feathers, and it is best to defend your art, antiques and collectibles against these art-loving pests.

There are two types of insects that destroy wood, those that attack fresh wood (trees and fresh wood in storage) and those that attack dry worked wood. They can remain active in the same piece of wood long enough to completely consume it. Often times, they will tunnel through a support leg or side panel on a piece of furniture, causing extensive structural damage. Their caustic work usually goes unnoticed until after much of the damage has already been done.

Only a few types of insects have an appetite for dry worked wood found in furniture, stretchers for paintings and picture frames. The most common are the woodworm or furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum), the long-horn house beetle (Hylotrupes bajulus) and the powder post beetle (Lyctus brunneus), including their relatives. Most wood-boring insects have life cycles of just a few years. They develop and change in four stages known as metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult insect). The larvae that hatch from eggs bore their way through wood, grinding it up and sometimes actually eating it.

Pieces of chewed wood and waste particles combine to form bore dust (frass), which is often species-specific in color and shape, allowing experts to identify the type of infestation. This sawdust or sand-like material can usually be found near where the fully formed beetle emerges through the bore or flight holes into the open air. Flight holes are a clear indication of previous or active infestation, requiring an inspection to determine if treatment or structural restoration is needed. Furniture beetles are attracted to softer woods in areas where temperatures are warm and humidity levels are high, while powder post beetles prefer a dry, warm environment to feed on starch and protein.

What to Look For:

Wood eaten away by insects can ruin antiques, weakening legs and supports until they break completely through.

Wood eaten away by insects can ruin antiques, weakening legs and supports until they break completely through.

Many insects are reclusive and are difficult to find because of their size and color. Look for insect remains, empty egg cases, termite wings, casings or skins that have been shed by larvae.

WOOD: Look for bore holes and sawdust. Lightly tap areas of wood where infestation is suspected with your finger tip to find hollow areas that may have been tunneled or eaten by insects.

TEXTILES: Look for small holes and areas that have become unusually thin.

PAPER: Look for small holes, tattered edges and areas where the paint or color appears to be abraded or erased. The abrasion can be caused by silverfish as they travel across the surface of a print, painting or document.

PAINTINGS: Look for small holes on the surface of the canvas, or bore/exit holes in panels, stretchers and frames. Many times insect remains are found in spider webs on the back of the painting. Small fly “specks” or droppings are commonly found on the surface of a painting and can be safely removed by an experienced restorer.

What to do if You Find Insect Damage:

Bore holes show where an infestation has taken place.

Bore holes show where an infestation has taken place.

Isolate the object by placing it in a sealed plastic bag or wrap to prevent the insects from spreading to other objects while you seek help.

Collect and preserve samples of any insect remains and bore-hole dust for inspection by an experienced art and furniture restorer or conservator and exterminator.

Do not spray pesticides directly on treasured objects of art or antiques, as they can stain, discolor and damage the surface or finish.

Some objects like wood and paper can be frozen to kill adult insects, larvae and eggs. Do not freeze paintings, photographs, lacquered surfaces or layered items.

Prevention Tips:

Keep your house and storage areas clean: Insects thrive on dusty, dirty and dark environments.

Keep your house and storage areas clean: Insects thrive on dusty, dirty and dark environments.

There are a number of practical measures that individuals can take to prevent an infestation in their home or office:

• Make sure that window and door screens prevent insects from entering;
• Do not bring outdoor plants into your home;
• Keep your house and storage areas clean: Insects thrive on dusty, dirty and dark environments;
• Lower the temperature and humidity levels, and increase air circulation;
• Art and antique items, documents and photographs that are stored should be kept in clean, airtight plastic containers in a controlled environment.

—by Douglas Eisele
Old World Restorations

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