The Most Prevalent Type of Damage to Fine Art

By Senior Conservator Peggy Van Witt

© 2010 Peggy Van Witt. All Rights Reserved.

Humans have created art since the beginning of their existence. What begun as chipped rock tool creations and primitive cave wall paintings, has evolved unrecognizably into a billion dollar industry which has come to define human history. Throughout time, we have treasured art and sought to preserve, restore and conserve it to the best of our abilities – even to artwork which is at best, only mildly aesthetically pleasing. Art defines our culture and speaks volumes about humanity in specific historical eras – and it is this ‘historical’ aspect of fine art which is perhaps its biggest downfall.

Like all other things, art ages. As the bones of our ancestors turned to dust, so did thousands of works of art. This process continues today. The passing of time is perhaps the most detrimental form of damage inflicted upon art in all its forms, whether it is a mural, marble statue, or fresco painted inside an antiquated church. Repeated exposure to harmful elements compounds over the years, causing often irreversible damage to precious works of fine art.

There are several environmental factors which damage fine art over time. The first environmental factor, most commonly associated with paintings, is smoke and fire damage. If a painting is hung over a fireplace for a month or so, the damage done will be minimal – but with most works of fine art, minimal exposure to harmful elements is rare. Most paintings are hung above a family fireplace for decades, causing damage. Daily exposure to smoke can impact a painting greatly. The most common sign of smoke damage is the darkening of a painting’s color, making it appear dull, gloomy and dim. Paintings hung in churches are the most widespread victims of smoke damage. Votive candles lit for hundreds of years near the paintings have detrimental effects on a painting’s color.

Michelangelo’s paintings atop the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel are a prime example of how smoke can damage fine art. Before restoration was begun in the early eighties, the Sistine Chapel’s ceilings looked dark, dim, and lacked the bright luster they were know for. ‘Before and after’ photos of the Sistine Chapel’s restoration and conservation are dramatic – and in many instances, unrecognizable. Smoke damage had obstructed important details of the paintings, which negatively affected the ‘enjoyability’ of the paintings. Candles are no longer allowed to burn in the Sistine Chapel, which will prevent any further soot and smoke damage and help to conserve this incredible work of art.

Smoke and soot damage is also prevalent on many other types of fine art. The Pieta, another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, which resides in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, had sat covered in soot and dust for hundreds of years. This remarkable marble statue, depicting the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the crucifixion, had grown dull and lifeless over the years. Art conservation artists improved both the monetary value of this restored work of fine art and the visual value by carefully removing layers of soot, ash and dust during an art restoration project.

You may have noticed that some of your family paintings have darkened over the years – this is not a result of the paint simply ‘becoming darker’ or changing over time – it is most likely the result of smoke and soot damage. The problem is correctable, but will compound over time if the proper steps are not taken to conserve the artwork. Properly caring for smoke and soot damage of a painting will surely preserve or enhance its value. Contact an art conservator for more information regarding removing the soot and smoke damage. Sometimes, the removal is simple and can be done in your own home using affordable, highly available materials!

Another common form of damage to fine art is caused by water. Unlike smoke and soot damage, water damage can worsen over time with repeated exposure or can be inflicted with a single exposure. Art repair and art restoration can be quite difficult in these instances. Paintings damaged by water require the helping hand of a talented art conservator. Art restoration for paintings with water damage necessitates correcting warping, flaking or missing paint, reshaping frames or canvases, and correcting fading or discoloration of the original paint. Carefully correcting water damage will surely increase the value of restored art – especially damaged paintings. Sculptures, pottery, furniture and textiles can also be affected. To increase the value of the artwork or to sustain current value, fine art conservation and fine art restoration are required. If you have unearthed a treasured family quilt in a basement box, you may need to take special steps to ensure the beloved heirloom survives the generations to come.

Although time is often seen as the enemy of artwork, it too can bring favorable outcomes. The passing of time can increase the value of artwork significantly. Many works of art are valuable simply because they are the sole survivors of a generation or genre of artwork. But to ensure they are seen by our children and our children’s children, we must practice proper art conservation techniques and fine art conservation.