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Sidewalk treasures: A conservation lesson from an Eames chair

Years ago, while on a walk through an L.A. neighborhood, I came across a pile of junk on the sidewalk—or so it seemed, until a few legs caught my eye. They looked just like those of the two beloved, Eames chairs I had at home. I moved closer, brushing away dirt on the underside of the chair’s shell. And much to my delight, yes! There was the beautiful Herman Miller imprint I was hoping to find.

Needless to say, the chair went home with me. Two hours later, I was pouring buckets of water over its fiberglass shell to clean off the grime and get a sense of the chair’s condition.

The shell and legs, once cleaned, were solid. But two punctures in the upholstery revealed stiff Styrofoam padding underneath—perhaps the reason for the chair’s banishment to the street corner. It was functional to sit in, but not nice to look at—a perfect candidate for some professional attention.

 

Function vs. Aesthetics

 

I reached out to Margo Delidow of Whryta Contemporary Art Conservation and explained the situation with my new chair. She commented, “The first question a collector needs to ask herself is: ‘What is the intent of the conservation: to preserve historical or functional value?’ Most of the time, it is difficult to achieve both. For example, the deterioration of the decades old polyurethane your Eames chair is made of is a one way-street—it will continue to decompose with time. Therefore, if your intent is to continue sitting in this chair, the best way to preserve functionality would be to have the chair re-upholstered. Herman Miller may have vintage textiles or a fabric similar to one that was used in the original chair. If you pursue this course, however, be aware that the chair may not be considered for inclusion in a museum collection as its original materials have been changed. This, alas, is the dilemma collectors are often faced with—one usually has to decide what is important to preserve.”

In my case, my home is a modest apartment, and I need a fourth chair for dinner guests. So my chair was off to the conservator to get re-upholstered, as I want both beauty and function to co-exist in my dining room.

 

A restored gong in a happier home

 

As conservators know, sculptures and objects displayed outdoors are vulnerable to environmental hazards. New-York-based conservators Batyah Shtrum and her partner Sarah Barack of SBE Conservation LLC recently restored a painted and coated Southeast Asian bronze gong for a client who had been displaying it on the veranda of her coastal Florida home.

The gong was three feet in diameter and weighed 300 pounds, so the conservators needed a special gantry to move forward with the work. SBE began with an initial analysis to characterize the paint, coating and metal alloy, all of which had been compromised by year-round exposure to a seaside environment. Then the conservation treatment began: consolidation of the deteriorated paint, followed by cleaning of the surface with individual cotton swabs. The treatment took about 200 hours of labor over three months, with the piece spending six months total at the conservators’ studio.

Once restoration was complete, explained Shtrum, the collector chose to keep the gong indoors to protect and preserve the integrity of the surface, instead of placing it back outside on the veranda. It was a smart decision, to be sure, but one that might have saved a lot of time, expense, and anxiety had that option been considered before the damage was done.

 

Beyond restoration: how a professional conservator can do more

 

In the case of the gong, the costly restoration might have been avoided if the collector had consulted with a conservator when she first acquired the piece. A knowledgeable conservator might have advised her that placing a bronze object outdoors would subject it to deterioration from rain and other environmental elements. While conservators are often brought in after damage has occurred, they are also agile experts who can also be called upon before a work of art, sculpture or piece of furniture is compromised, to discuss the best ways of proactively maintaining the object.

Professional conservators—like those who restored the Southeast Asian gong and my own Eames chair—can help you protect treasured artworks and your investment in them. They can:

  • Recognize acute conservation problems, such as flaking paint and bronze “disease,” and submit detailed treatment proposals to minimize deterioration
  • Carry out expert, fully documented conservation treatments according to a professional Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice
  • Examine and record the condition of art and antiques to track future visual and physical changes
  • Improve the physical safety and appearance of works for display (mounts, frames, mats, hanging hardware)
  • Consult on authentication, dating, and material investigations
  • Measure, monitor, and improve the environment in your home, including temperature, relative humidity (RH), and light for better display and preservation
  • Upgrade storage conditions from the item to the collection-level
  • Collaborate with architects, curators, art handlers and collection care professionals
  • Select and procure conservation-quality storage and shipping materials and advise on transportation options

These preventative conservation strategies for your collection are the kinds of services offered by conservators in private practice. Demand for these experts—who have knowledge in both chemistry and art history—is on the rise, as collectors become more adventurous in living with artwork made of non-traditional materials (such as bubble gum on paintings), challenging mediums (such as video art) and integrating their collections into their landscapes (such as a gong on the veranda).

 

Insurance coverage as proactive as you are

 

A broad art insurance policy typically extends coverage for your insured object for perils like fire, flood, and theft while it is a conservator’s studio. However, insurers haven’t traditionally offered coverage for accidental damage by a conservator during the treatment process. Berkley One now offers up to $10,000 in coverage for certain kinds of damage during conservation through our Collectible Suite™ policy. There is also coverage available for higher limits, pending pre-approval of the conservator and treatment proposal—because preserving your unique treasures means being proactive in their long-term care.

 

Resources

 

To locate a professional conservator by locale and specialization, contact The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

To learn more about Berkley One’s Collectible Suite™ coverage, visit us here.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President of Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One.