Conserve Your Collections

Learn options for restoring your precious items.

An original art collection is priceless to its owner, regardless of its actual monetary value. Are there regular steps you should take to maintain your paintings and works on paper? And if they’re damaged for some reason, what can be repaired? We spoke to Heather Becker, CEO of The Conservation Center, the Chicago facility that has become the largest private art conservation facility in the nation.

Thirty conservators, artisans and administrators from around the world now staff the center, including a 24/7 disaster and triage team, which has been able to recover some dramatic near-losses in both commercial and private art collections. Becker, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the International School of Art in Italy, and is also the co-founder of New Deal Preservation Association-Midwest Chapter, answered our questions about routine maintenance— and triage—for works on paper and canvas.

Q: What kind of routine maintenance tips do you have for paintings and works of art of paper? What should owners look for?

A: Owners should look for the following potentially damaging materials and conditions, and call a conservator, who can recommend changes:

  • Old non-archival framing materials on acidic mat, hinging methods using aggressive tapes or glues; acidic backing boards like cardboard and wood.
  • Non-UV filtering glazing, which allows fading to occur slowly over time.
  • Fluctuations in temperature and humidity, which can accelerate deterioration—such as near a bathroom or fireplace, or simply a poor-performing HVAC system.
  • Do you have paintings or works on paper in direct sunlight? Do you have a piece with a sensitive surface in a high-traffic hallway? Location is key.
  • How are you storing items? Does your storage facility have climate controls; are its employees background-checked; does it have a central security control system with high-resolution cameras? We suggest you survey your collection with a professional conservator twice a year. As that person makes notes, make sure you understand how any subtle issues in your collection are detected.

Q. If my art has been damaged, what are the first steps I should take?

A. Call your conservator immediately to see if triage can mitigate the damage. Never assume an item is a loss until it is examined by a professional conservator; you will be amazed by what he or she can save. Then:

  • Call your broker and make sure he or she is informed of the details.
  • Make sure you document items in-situ. Good documentation can help facilitate recovery.
  • Respond quickly: fire damage is acidic and will continue to deteriorate works over time; water damage and mold develop within 72 hours. Response time is critical.
  • Keep track of all fragments or chips, which can be helpful during conservation, and provenance, which can help in retaining the history and value of the piece.

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