Reversing the Effects of Time: What to do with Damaged Art and Antiques

An oil painting before restoration and after restoration. The difference is clear.

An oil painting before restoration and after restoration. The difference is clear.

If you have an old oil painting, maybe one that has been in your family for years, that has become discolored and the paint is beginning to flake, there is hope.

When damage and deterioration occurs to art, antiques, photographs and historic documents, you should seek the advice of an experienced conservator. A professional conservator can diagnose problems, provide treatment options when necessary, prescribe a maintenance plan and recommend proper display and storage practices to prevent further damage.

Choosing the right conservator to best restore and preserve your art and antiques can sometimes be complicated and intimidating. Unfortunately, making to wrong choice can risk loss or further damage to sensitive objects that are often irreplaceable. Many private conservators provide restoration and conservation services to the general public, as well as to museums and institutions.

You should select a conservator in the same way that you would choose a doctor, lawyer or any other professional. Make sure that the conservator’s training, experience and facility are appropriate for your needs. Don’t hesitate to ask for and check references, see examples of completed projects that are similar to yours and to tour their facility. Verify that the conservator has established appropriate handling and storage procedures, provides adequate security and the proper insurance to protect your items while in their care. Ask the conservator if the results of his or her proposed treatment can be reversed without further damage to the item (which is important), and if they will provide you with written estimates and detailed documentation of all treatments performed.

This shows the before and after of a deacidification process.

This shows the before and after of a deacidification process.

The selection of a conservator should depend in part on the type of materials that require treatment. For example, the restoration and conservation of paintings, ceramics, wooden objects, textiles, metals and paper demands different knowledge, materials, facilities and expertise.

You can also seek recommendations from museums and galleries in your community. Many museums use the services of conservators to care for items in their collections on a regular basis. Curators of such institutions are usually willing to provide the names and addresses of conservators who have performed conservation treatments. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) maintains a free service that can provide you with the names of conservators in your area or conservators that have specific expertise for your precious belongings. You can contact the AIC office in Washington, D.C., at 202.452.9545.

Guidelines for selecting a conservator are available from A.I.C. It suggests that you consider the following when selecting a conservator:

Procedures: A conservator should examine the object before suggesting a particular form of treatment. Prior to beginning treatment, the conservator should provide for your review and approval a written preliminary examination report with a description of the proposed treatment, expected results and estimated cost. The conservator should consult you during the treatment if any serious deviation from the agreed-upon proposal is needed;

Cost and Schedule: The conservator should be willing to discuss the basis for all charges. Determine if there are separate rates for preliminary examination and evaluation and if these preliminary charges are separate or deductible from a subsequent contract. Ask questions about insurance, payment terms, shipping and additional charges. Conservators often have a backlog of work; inquire if a waiting period is necessary before new work can be accepted;

Documentation: The conservator should provide a treatment report when treatment is completed. Such reports may vary in length and form but should list materials and procedures used. The final report may, if appropriate, include photographic records documenting condition before and after treatment. Recommendations for continued care and maintenance may also be provided. Both written and photographic records should be unambiguous. All records should be retained for reference in case the object requires treatment in the future.

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The professional restoration of a painting will bring a dull, spotted work back to life.


Douglas Eisele is the founder and owner of Old World Restorations in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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