Restoring a Masterpiece: CSI for the Art World, Only Happier

Artwork is not often built to last or to move, yet we insist on both. Some time ago, I worked with a collector of eighteenth-century French paintings who regularly shipped works to his home in Utah. Moving paintings from a relatively humid Western Europe to the American desert compounded other problems associated with older works of art.  Paint decays over time, causing colors to lose their original hues. Glazes age,  darken colors and yellowing the overall work. But, perhaps more dangerous that all of these is the lack of--or dramatic increase in--humidity.  Works on panel (i.e. wood), in particular, tend to crack, buckle or completely detiorate. Solving these problems can cause collectors to recruit a CSI-like team of experts to stabalize restore and conserve a work. (Dim your computer screen to emulate CSI filming.)

In trying to explain this to another collector, I was very happy to find this video, published by the Indianapolis Museum of Art on the restoration and conservation of a major work in its collection: Madonna and Child with St. Nicolas of Babi and St. Justina by Sebastiano Mainardi (San Gimignano, 1460-1513). Painted with oil on wood, the altarpiece was moved to the US in the early twentieth century. At the time, in order to stablized the large panel of wood it was painted on, a complex lattice of wood--called a "cradle"--was fastened to the back. Cradles were a typical solution to stabalizing wood panels throughout the nineteenth century. Though well intentioned, they prevent wood from breathing and cause it to buckle and crack, which then leads to problems with the paint on its surface. The solution, as demonstrated by the video, can stretch the capabilities of modern technology.