First Aid For Ailing Artwork

Anyone who has recently seen the Sistine chapel knows the magic restorers can perform on decaying masterpieces. But art conservation isn't just for museums. Any painting, whether it has been stored in a musty attic or displayed in your living room, may need some maintenance over time.

Besides major damage from floods or fire, paintings can suffer a host of subtle ailments--caused by sunlight, swings in humidity, or other atmospheric conditions. Canvases become brittle from oxidation, making edges tear. Paintings may "cup," creating cleavage between canvas and paint. Varnishes darken with time, obscuring colors.

BENIGN NEGLECT. Deciding whether to restore a picture can be tricky. If the painting is in particularly bad shape, the result might be more the work of a 1991 restorer than a 1790 master. And a botched job can hurt the value of a painting. "Sometimes benign neglect is the best thing of all," says Everett Fahy, chairman of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Still, restoration can vastly improve the look of a painting and should be considered if a work appears to be in disrepair. The first step is finding a good restorer. In the U. S., there's no official certification, which means that anyone can hang out a shingle. Some frame shops advertise restoration services, but many simply contract with outside experts and charge you a marked-up price. It's better to deal with the restorer directly.

One reliable resource is the American Institute for Conservation (202 232-6636), which offers a free referral service. Many museums will also provide lists of local restorers. Find out where the person was trained and check references. It's a good sign if the restorer has done work for a museum.

Before signing a contract, ask the restorer to outline the work to be done--and read the proposal carefully. Ross Merrill, now chief of conservation at the National Gallery in Washington, says he once shocked a private client by removing clouds that weren't originally part of the painting. He stated his intention to do so in his proposal, he says, but the owner didn't read it.

Not all restorations result in major changes. Many simply take care of cosmetic problems. Grime can be erased with detergents and darkening varnishes removed with solvents. Where paint is missing, restorers do "in-painting," filling in spaces without covering any of the existing paint.

BIG PICTURE. Restorers quote rates from $25 to $100 an hour. But such numbers can mislead. Instead, ask that the contract say how long a job will take, and get a total cost estimate. It should include a provision for written and photographic documentation of the restoration for future reference.

Despite what how-to books say about caring for paintings, leave restoration to pros. Says the National Gallery's Merrill: "There are a lot of do-it-yourselfers out there. They should be discouraged."