GUILD IN THE PRESS
on Preserving Damaged Art and Antiques
By Robert H. Goldberg
- Country Roads, October
I am writing this story from a Katrina-forced exile in Punta Gorda,
Florida. Yes, Punta Gorda, the small Gulf city midway between Sarasota
and Fort Myers, that Hurricane Charley blasted last August 13. The people
here know about the life altering changes wrought by a terrible storm;
and they empathize completely with usKatrina evacuees. My wife,
Kit, and I have been offered compassion for our dislocation in every
grocery store, restaurant and drug store. The generous folks invite
us to dinner, and some have even offered rent-free homes, while we wait
to safely return to our New Orleans digs.
Like many displaced Gulf Coast residents, we are uncertain about the
condition of our home and its contents. Did the roof of our apartment
building remain intact? And what about mold and mildew attacking our
furniture and beloved collection of antique needlework? My brother and
sister-in-laws Punta Gorda home is nicely furnished, but we miss
the familiarity of the things we have collected over forty-plus years
of marriage. Its a kind of separation anxiety usually reserved
for an absent dear friend or relative.
Returning evacuees are likely to find their treasured antiques, art
and general household contents affected by a host of hurricane horrors.
I contacted Blake Von der Haar, director of the New Orleans Conservation
Guild, a diversified art and antiques restoration and conservation firm,
for her advice on how to handle these post hurricane problems. She e-mailed
me from Greenville, South Carolina, where she was assisting Heidi Trull,
the former proprietor of Elizabeths Restaurant in the Bywater,
with a New Orleans-style meal for a thousand evacuees.
Von der Haar cautions do-it-yourself restorers. Its important
for a trained conservator to perform triage on artwork, she said.
Theres a lot we can do at no charge until full restoration
can be performed later on down the road. From my personal experience
with water damage following two antiques shop fires, I know that Von
der Haars advice should be extended to antiques of every description.
Before dragging out the Windex, Formula 409 and the Elmers glue
to spruce up great-great grandmothers sideboard and portrait,
take a deep breath and call an expert.
Von der Haar says wooden objects can expand up to one inch per foot
when exposed to water, so they must be allowed to dry slowly to stabilize.
She recommends placing them in a normal environment, away from water,
but not devoid of humidity (Thats not a problem in our region.)
to avoid a severe change. Veneered furniture really takes a beating
from moisture. If a piece gets wet and the veneer begins to separate
from the secondary wood, do not try to put the veneer down. You may
crack and break the fragile thin veneer, and create more and costly
future problems. The veneers on eighteenth century furniture are usually
thick and brittle and defy an amateurs efforts to make a proper
repair. In short, before defacing and ultimately devaluing a fine antique,
I advise consulting a qualified cabinetmaker.
If water is dripping from a damaged roof or oozing through broken walls,
your gilded mirror and picture frames are under a death threat. Von
der Haar warns that water is the archenemy of gold leaf and the plaster
beneath it. If the handsome decoration and gilding has turned to mush,
do not toss out a frame. She believes many of these casualties can be
restored. And with the high costs for antique frames, the restoration
may be well worth it. Remember, however, to let the damaged frame completely
dry out and to keep any loose parts for the restorer.
Paintings are major victims of storm damage. During a hurricane they
can be submerged in water, and seem to grow wings, only to be impaled
on fence posts miles away from their original homes. There is
no need to remove a damaged painting from its frame, Von der Haar
said. Turn it upside down and every which way to shake the water
from inside the framing and from behind the stretcher bars. She
feels that even if a picture looks hopeless, do not give up on it. She
adds that the moisture trapped between the painting and the canvas may
turn white. But this is similar to a white ring on a coffee table created
by a wet glass and can be removed. Treat paintings gently until
they can be stabilized by a restorer, she admonished. And,
and of course, they should be kept out of the sun. In contrast
to oil or acrylic art, framed paper artworks like watercolors, posters,
prints and maps should be removed from their frames and away from the
enclosing glass, mats and cardboard backing. Von der Haar suggests laying
them flat to dry completely on a towel or newspaper.
Like day follows night, mold comes after a hurricane. Blake says that
generally mold can be treated but it is best not to let it begin, as
it can be very aggressive and hard to remove. We can treat things
in a fungicidal chamber to kill the spores, and then remove any stains
and discoloration in the restoration process, she added.
If the repair and restoration of your art and antiques is covered or
not covered by insurance, be certain that the person doing the work
is qualified and experienced. Dont be bashful. Ask for references,
a complete description of the procedures to be done and the costs involved.
Remember, as custodians of these precious objects, we have a responsibility
to preserve them for posterity.