There is an immediate feeling of elation when buying fine art from an established auction house like Christie’s Hong Kong, particularly if the purchase is expected to increase in value over the years. While the investment may come at a premium price, especially
for older, rare artworks by collectible artists, the thrill of the purchase is merely the first step in building a valuable art collection that stands the test of time.
That’s where an art restorer and conservator comes in—to repair the damage inflicted on an artwork because of climate changes, microbes, humidity, insects, and exposure to light. (Restoration refers to cosmetic treatment, while conservation refers to preventing further damage.)
With older masterpieces, it is inevitable that damage will occur because the canvas was not acid free and likely coated with a thick layer of varnish that has cracked after decades of being exposed to humidity.
At the Roberto M. Lopez Conservation Center in Ortigas, also home to the Lopez Memorial Museum and Library, chemist-conservator Maria Bernardita “Maita” Maronilla Reyes manages a small, but dedicated team of experts and analysts in what is considered the foremost restoration facility in the country, and arguably one of the best in Southeast Asia. The conservation program, which Reyes initiated in 2000, specializes in restoring artworks of all sizes from canvas paintings, murals, works on print to frames; the restoration ranges from simple retouching to more complex techniques using the facility’s state-of-the-art machines and technology.
“Conservation is not just repairing, but knowing the causes of the problem and solving it first,” explains Reyes. Her background in art and historical building restoration and conservation spans more than 25 years, including an impressive roster of specialized courses taken in Japan, Singapore, Austria, the United States, and Italy, where Reyes apprenticed under the late Umberto Baldini, the director of the Instituto del Restauro in Rome who led the restoration of the Sistine Chapel’s magnificent ceiling paintings. Her most significant restoration projects have been paintings by Filipino masters Juan Luna y Novicio, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, Simon Flores, Fernando Amorsolo, and Vicente Manansala.
Five basic steps in restoration
Reyes’ “less is more” approach to restoration emphasizes minimal and less invasive methods that place science in the service of art, which is the foundation of the Center’s five basic steps in restoration.
Before proceeding with any kind of restoration, an analyst takes note of the artwork’s history and details on an assessment form, and the cost is determined. “Like if you are a patient, a doctor has to evaluate your history first,” Reyes notes.
An art conservator then physically analyzes the visible damage—“looking for cracks, molds, tears, fading of color,” says Reyes—and takes photo documentation. An interview is conducted with the owner to find out the cause of the damage. Once approved by both the owner and the analyst, the artwork is quarantined and depending on the affected areas, the canvas is removed from the frame and is fumigated to eliminate microorganisms. Conservation scientists conduct lab tests to closely analyze pigments and determine how far the damage has spread.
The artwork then undergoes cleaning, chemical stabilization, physical stabilization, cosmetic improvement (optional), and protective coating.
Each artwork to be restored goes through these steps:
The artwork is cleaned mechanically or chemically. In some cases, the varnish is chemically removed. Conservator Maita Reyes, however, prefers to soften the varnish rather than to completely remove it because it has become part of the painting itself. She mixes her own cleaning agents purchased from the US.
2. Chemical stabilization
This may involve humidification by cool mist, steam, spray, or immersion to remove acidity, which eats fibers, and make toxic agents less resistant to leaching onto the artwork.
3. Physical stabilization
Any hole, tear, or flaking paint is patched and mended. For works on paper, a leaf-casting machine with a water pump and vacuum fills holes with pulp blended with water for an even, uniform finish. (The Roberto M. Lopez Conservation Center has the biggest leaf-casting machine in the Philippines.)
4. Aesthetic unity
This refers to cosmetic improvement, which is optional. Stains are removed spot by spot, using a special liquid agent that Reyes sources from Italy. Fine brushes and water-based paints are used for minimal retouching. The technician must not impose his or her artistic style, but adhere to the intent of the artist, and should also be knowledgeable about the original pigments and palette.
A protective coating (ultraviolet varnish) is applied to prevent fading due to light exposure; acid-free backing replaces old canvas and frames are refitted for paintings, if needed. Any special stretching of canvas is done. Old stretchers can be painted a basic white to prevent cockroaches from climbing and nesting in the painting (they are attracted to dark paint).
According to Reyes, a restoration project is considered successful when the least amount of intervention produces optimum results. “We apply the three principles of conservation: reversibility, compatible stability [not using material stronger than the original], and minimalism [the less you add, the better],” says Reyes.
Aesthetics must be balanced with authenticity, Reyes insists. “Any restoration done should be reversible. There is a special ingredient that we add to pigment to make it reversible.”
But above all, if a client is satisfied with the end result, the team knows that they were able to accomplish their goals.
Most of the center’s clients are private collectors, and they also restore the masterpieces in the Lopez Memorial Museum’s permanent collection. It can take anywhere between a
few months to over a year for a restoration project to be completed, depending on the extent of repair needed. As for the price tag, for the cleaning of intact paintings up to 18 x 24 inches (for the removal of dirt and accretions only), the starting price is P7,500, but it can even go up significantly higher for larger works and those that have extensive damage. But, collectors view that as small change compared to the benefit of making art last for generations to come.
The Roberto M. Lopez Conservation Center is located at Basement Floor of Benpres Building, Exchange Road corner Meralco Avenue, Ortigas Center, Pasig. For more information, call 635-9545, or visit lopez-museum.com
Photographs by Ena Lopez Terol
This article first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 4 2011.