Art appraisal & Conservation

Dr. Elin Lake-Ewald addresses the most frequently posed questions concerning Conservation:

What is the difference between conservation and restoration?

  • Conservation is the process of controlling the environment around an object to slow its decay
  • Restoration procedures seek to return the object to its original condition, and preferably, its original usage.

For instance, a textile 19th-century American quilt that appears age darkened and sagging on its hanging apparatus may need only professional washing and backing to brighten up the cloth and alleviate the strain of hanging on the wall. This is considered conservation since there will be no alteration to any portion of the textile.

If on the other hand, the quilt displays signs of extensive moth damage and small sections must be replaced or repaired, the repair work is considered restoration. There will have been one or more pairs of hands, other than those of the original maker, that have worked on the quilt.

How to find the “right” conservator?

Our response: The best way to choose a conservator is to ask more questions. For instance, ask a professional you may hire for the job:

  1. What type of training he or she has had to perform this task
  2. The length of his or her professional experience
  3. If conservation is the focus of work or do they wear many hats, such as appraising, dealing, etc. 
  4. Experience in working with the kind of object for which the client seeks help
  5. Membership in professional associations having a code of ethics 
  6. References and previous clients
  7. Availability for the assignment and hourly fees
  8. Responsibility for insuring an item, conservator or client
  9. Arranging for transportation, conservator or client
  10.  If an appraisal of the item is required before restoration begins

What should the client expect from the conservator?

  1. Personal examination of the object prior to suggested treatment
  2. Cost of the treatment and time frame
  3. Documentation should be provided following the completion of treatment, including both written and photographic records
  4. Disclosure of risk involved in undertaking restoration or conservation
  5. Information as to cost of transporting artwork and who is responsible, client or conservator

How do you find a professional conservator?

  1. A recommendation from someone who has used the conservator with successful results with the same type of object
  2. Contact with local museums for recommended practitioners
  3. Request that the artist, if living, restore the work of art. However, since the artist has rarely had conservation training, technical problems may arise from going this route.
  4. Contact with The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and FAIC Conservation Services Referral System

AIC is the national non-profit organization of conservation professionals. There is a Conservation Services System (CSRS), but the inclusion of a conservator’s name on the list does not imply professional endorsement since the list is created from information provided by AIC members and has not been verified further. The conservators are grouped according to categories of Fellow, Professional, Associate, or Associate that reflect varying levels of experience, professionalism, and professional recognition. 

How to prevent problems in conservation?

  1. Select a conservator who specializes in either painting or ceramics, paper or three-dimensional objects, not all of them. A jack of all trades in this field is invariably a master of none.
  2. If an appraiser provides a report that recommends restoration, the client should be provided with the name and contact numbers of the conservator, as well as professional treatment proposal and direct cost. The client should be able to deal directly with the conservator.
  3. Avoid having the conservator express an opinion about loss in value following restoration since this is within the province of the appraiser, not a conservator. It is a normal reaction for a conservator to believe the results of his or her work will do wonders for a damaged piece; an appraiser may take a less subjective viewpoint. For instance, damage to the paint layer of a monochromatic painting, such as those by Yves Klein, Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly or Robert Mangold is difficult to inpaint or compensate and will always reflect light differently than the untouched portion when viewed from an oblique angle.
  4. Always disclose restoration. If a sale is considered in the future, it is best to hold on to the conservation report to pass on to the potential purchaser who may elect to bring in his own conservator to look at the artwork prior to purchase. Full disclosure is the only ethical, and reputation-safe, procedure for either dealer of collector.

Essentials for Conservation Framing

  1. Have the framer use recommended methods and materials for conservation framing, matted with acid-free buffered mats and backboards, and with Japanese paper hinges held in place with cooked starch paste.
  2. Separate artwork from glass either with proper matting or a fillet. 
  3. Use glass or acrylic glazing materials over artwork to protect against environmental elements. Acrylics should not be used for charcoals, pastels or chalk drawings since they can striate static electricity.

Selected Conservation Terms

  • Abraded: Loss of media and/ or paper fibers caused by friction
  • Acid: A substance with a pH below 7.0 that weaken cellulose in paper, board, and cloth
  • Alkaline: Substances with a pH above 7.0 that may be added to materials to neutralize acids
  • Buckling: Soft random distortions of the support
  • De-acidifications: Chemical treatment that neutralizes acid in paper and deposits and alkaline buffer
  • Faded: Loss of color
  • Fill: Replacement of lost support material
  • Foxing: Yellow/ brown circular staining of paper
  • Fugitive: Unstable media or color
  • Inherent Vice: Material of method of construction in an art object that causes or aids deterioration of the object
  • Mat Burn: Darkening of support caused by contact with acidic vapors
  • Neutral: Having a pH of 7.0, neither acid nor alkaline
  • Preservation: Activities associated with maintaining materials for use, either in original form or some other format
  • Reversibility: Ability to undo a process or treatment with no change to object
  • Secondary Support: Mounting support, stretcher, backing or backboard
  • Skinning: Abrasion where thin layer of support surface has been removed
  • Surface Cleaning: Removal of accretions by mechanical means


Laura Stirton Aust, ARTcare Inc.,

Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

Thompson, Tatyana M., “Dilemmas of Compensation in Contemporary Art, Western Association for Art Conservation Annual Meeting 1993, pp 29-32

Case Studies in files of O’Toole-Ewald Art Associates, Inc., New York