Blown Away

Post-Hurricane Advice on Preserving Damaged Art and Antiques

By Robert H. Goldberg
- Country Roads, October 2005


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 us—Katrina 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-law’s Punta Gorda home is nicely furnished, but we miss the familiarity of the things we have collected over forty-plus years of marriage. It’s 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 Elizabeth’s Restaurant in the Bywater, with a New Orleans-style meal for a thousand evacuees.

Von der Haar cautions do-it-yourself restorers. “It’s important for a trained conservator to perform triage on artwork,” she said. “There’s 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 Haar’s advice should be extended to antiques of every description. Before dragging out the Windex, Formula 409 and the Elmer’s glue to spruce up great-great grandmother’s 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 (That’s 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 amateur’s 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. Don’t 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.


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