What Role Do Art Conservators Play in Repairing and Preserving Family Heirloom Paintings?

By Senior Conservator Peggy Van Witt

© 2010 Peggy Van Witt. All Rights Reserved.

Art conservators are some of the most important figures in the art community. They are responsible for preserving, restoring and conserving art in all its forms to ensure their survival for future generations. Art restoration, art conservation, art preservation, and art repair, are skills most art conservators possess and practice in various settings. Some art conservators work with famous museums, such as the Louvre, Tate Museum, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art to restore antiquated paintings or statues. Some art conservators collaborate with universities to pass their skills onto future generations of art conservators. Several others operate independently, working with individuals to restore, conserve or preserve their beloved family heirloom paintings.

If you’ve been thinking about how that family heirloom painting hung above the fireplace could use a makeover, you’re probably right. Paintings, just like any other entity, are subject to aging.

As time passes, paintings often suffer. Damage to your painting may include warping, smoke and soot damage, yellowing, collection of dust and grime, discoloration, physical tearing of the canvas, or cracking of a wood base. Whatever the problem may be with your painting, hiring a qualified art conservator to restore and/or repair your family heirloom painting is a rewarding step in preserving your painting for future generations.

Art conservation and art restoration, carried out by a qualified art conservator, will surely increase the value of a painting… even the portrait of Uncle John hanging in the foyer. When it comes to family heirloom paintings, the term ‘value’ can be broadened. We can refer to the painting’s value as both monetary or sentimental – either way, art conservation and art restoration will have a beneficial impact on your beloved possession.

Finding a qualified art conservator to restore your family heirloom painting may be a bit of a challenge, depending on your location. Art conservators must undergo a rigorous process to become certified and to complete the work needed to become qualified. This means that art conservators can be few and far between – but those who are actively working as art conservators are highly qualified, knowledgeable and skilled in their craft.

If you cannot locate an independent art conservator in your area, contact local museums and art galleries. Chances are, they have a certified art conservator employed there who may be able to help you, either in restoring your art themselves or by putting you into contact with an art conservator who can.

Once you’ve found a qualified art conservator, check to ensure they specialize in the area of your type of painting. Fine art conservation is a highly specialized field; therefore art conservators too can be highly specialized, even concerning the time period in which paintings were created. Give the art conservator as much detail and history about your painting as you can. The more information they are given, the more thorough job they will be able to do. Relevant information may include where the painting has been hung, where the painting was stored, if it has been coated in varnish, its age, and its value.

Art conservation and art restoration of a family heirloom painting can be costly, depending on the severity of damage. Many people choose to have an appraisal done on the painting before contacting an art conservator. If you suspect the painting may have a significant monetary value, have an appraisal done on the painting before seeking the services of an art conservator. Often, the monetary cost of art conservation and art restoration, performed by an art conservator, surpasses that of the painting’s monetary value. To some, this impacts their decision of whether or not to hire an art conservator to restore their painting. But to many others, the sentimental value of a family heirloom painting supersedes its monetary value.

If you choose to proceed with a restoration by a qualified art conservator, keep in mind that the process can be costly and timely. Art restoration and art conservation is a tedious procedure which should not be rushed. Repairing paintings involves many involved steps – and if done incorrectly, can have detrimental effects on the painting. After initial assessment of the painting, the art conservator will determine his/her course of action. Often times, the first step in painting repair and painting restoration involves removing yellowed varnish, or repairing a physical tear. Whatever the case, have patience. Art conservators are artists too and their process should never be rushed.

Remain in contact with your hired art conservator during the painting repair and art restoration process. If they feel a change should be made, such as over-painting or reframing, they will question you first. Once the process is complete, you may or may not recognize your painting! The results are often quite dramatic, but undoubtedly beneficial. Your painting may look like new – treat it as such. This may mean relocating the beloved portrait of Uncle Bob to a bedroom, and away from a fireplace.