When Art Restoration Goes Wrong

Art restoration is the act of bringing the beauty and value back into a damaged or degraded piece of artwork. Art restoration is also considered an art, since the professional must not only imagine what the piece looked like before the damage, but must meticulously recreate it using modern materials that most likely did not exist when the art was initially created. Artisans who perform this service often train for years as apprentices with skilled artwork restoration specialists. Some also have degrees in art history and are able to recreate the style of the era expertly. There is no doubt that this specialized trade is unique and necessary in order to preserve artistic treasures. Problems often occur when an amateur artist attempts to restore a piece of art.

Nowhere is this trouble most evident than in a very recent example of an amateur artist thinking she could do the work of a professional. In Borja, Spain a 19th Century fresco painting called Ecco Homo by artist Elias Garcia Martinez was in need of restoration. The church in which it was painted had secured funds from the artist’s granddaughter to hire a professional art restoration artist. However, before the church’s council could decide who to hire, an elderly parishioner, Cecelia Gimenez, took it upon herself to attempt to restore the painting. The result was a strikingly damaged piece of art that could have easily been restored at the hands of a professional. Although this piece of art was not considered worth a great deal, the emotional damage to the family cannot be measured in money.

Often when art restorers do not follow the adage ‘less is more’, irreversible damage can happen. This is exemplified by the restoration in the nineteenth century of the ancient Greek statues and of David. In an over-attempt to clean these ancient works, art restorers decided to clean even the trace amounts of original paint by either blasting it away or by cleaning the statue (in the case of David) with hydrochloric acid. All of these statues were fully painted in their original form, but because of the desire to clean the statues, we have lost a part of the artist’s work. Likewise, two da Vinci paintings were irreversibly damaged when they were cleaned. It is often very difficult to distinguish actual dirt from pigments and sometimes the restorer, in an attempt at finishing the work more quickly, will use solvent and materials that damage the artist’s pigments. Some old ink pigments can be completely destroyed by merely dipping the work in a weak alcohol solution.

Other types of art have been exposed to shoddy restoration through the ages. For example, damaged alabaster sarcophagi were ‘restored’ with cheap plaster. Using improper materials is one of the major reasons that art restorations go horribly wrong. Taking the time to learn about the materials in each piece of art is a job in and of itself and requires the patience and discipline of a skilled artisan.

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