A Restoration Gone Awry

Sometimes actions taken with best of intentions, can result in complete disaster. Such was the case in the tiny Spanish village of Borja, after an elderly woman claimed responsibility for attempting to restore a century-old fresco painted by Elias Garcia Martinez. The painting is a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and is named Ecce Homo or “Behold the Man” translated from Latin. The new version unintentionally gives Jesus’s beard a drastic shave and removes the crown of thorns. Some have even said that the painting gives its subject a monkey-like appearance.

The Ecce Homo before and after "restoration."

Cecilia Gimenez told Spanish television that she wanted to help fix the painting after seeing it deteriorate from moisture and flaking caused by humidity over the years. She also told reporters that her “restoration” was done with the permission of the church’s priest. “The priest knew it,” Gimenez explained to local television. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.” Initially, officials believed that the painting fell victim to vandalism instead of the good intentions of one of the church’s parishioners. “I’ve seen many well intentioned do-it-yourself restorations; objects have great meaning to people, and they want to keep them looking good,” said Beth Edelstein, an associate conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “It’s at least heartening that she did it out of love and care for the painting, rather than with an intent to do harm,” she added.

Fixes for the Fresco

Gimenez’s alterations to the painting render it largely unrecognizable compared to the original that had been hanging in her beloved church for years. Gone are the painting’s original proportions, perspective, shading, and depth. Edelstein believes that it is quite possible that Gimenez’s changes to the painting are in fact reversible. The elderly woman’s recollection of the materials she used and her methods will be a great help for conservators as plans for conservation move forward. “It is actually quite helpful that she can tell the conservators exactly what she did and what she used — we rarely have that information and often spend a lot of time trying to determine the answers to those questions,” she said to the Houston Chronicle.

The American Institute of Conservators strongly advises against do-it-yourself conservation projects undertaken by amateurs. On the organization’s website, there is a function to find a conservator in your area to perform the work needed on your piece. Additionally, AIC offers a comprehensive guide on how to choose the right conservator for your project, in addition to an exhaustive article regarding the care of paintings.

Despite AIC’s strong recommendations, amateur art restorers around the world now have a strictly internet-based chance to make their own changes to the Ecce Homo as part of the Cecilia Prize contest. Entry is simple: restore the painting using a virtual palette and then tweet  your submission using the #CeciliaPrize hashtag on Twitter. Your prize? A poster of the new Cecilia Gimenez version of the Ecce Homo.

Asian Museum of Art Performs Conservation Treatment on Samurai Armor

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is home to a world-renowned collection of over 18,000 pieces spanning more than 6,000 years of Asia’s history. Included in this collection is a Japanese Gusoku-type armor that dates back to the 19th century. In the spring of 2011, this armor underwent an extensive conservation treatment. Their finished product was recently revealed, and the armor now sits prominently in the museum’s display cases.

This armor probably never actually saw action on the battlefield and was likely used for ceremony or even display. Prior to conservation, the armor, made of a wide variety of materials including iron, silk, bronze, animal hair and leather, was in serious disrepair. The museum’s team of conservators used high-powered microscopes and x-ray technology to reveal the damaged areas.  For instance, the shin guards on the armor are made out of a fine steel chain-link material and tied off with cotton silk straps. Repairs to these straps were done using invisible hair silk and cotton patches. Other metal components of the armor, including the helmet crest were cleaned for corrosion using a proper cleaning solution and fiber-tipped applicators.

A conservator from the Asian Art Museum repairs a part of the samurai armor's shin guards. (photo courtesy of American Art Museum)

Other losses needed to be mended, including those to the leather thigh guards. Tears and holes were mended using a long-fibered Japanese paper called tengujo. Tengujo, like many other Japanese papers is flexible and strong, enabling it to move with the piece without adding bulk to it. This paper helped fill a large hole in the intricately printed bands in the armor. Conservators also utilized adhesives to secure flaking areas on the face mask. Using a syringe, an adhesive was applied to fill in the tiny cracks on the mask’s surface. Traditionally, samurai armor rests on a specific type of mount made of various-sized, tiered wooden hangers holding true to a minimalist aesthetic. The museum’s textile conservator built a custom form made from starched cotton buckram, that was later cut down to fit on the traditional wooden mount.

Conservators use tengujo, a Japanese paper to mend a loss in the samurai armor. (photo from the Asian Art Museum's flickr page)

How University Products can help you

University Products carries a diverse product line that includes many items similar to what the Asian Art Museum’s conservators used during this conservation treatment. Our fiber-tipped applicators and cleaning swabs are ideal for conservation and restoration use, especially for cleaning. For getting a closer look at individual fibers in your textile pieces, try our PortaScope Digital Microscope.  Both our plastic syringes and adhesive applicators can help you apply adhesives to small crevices. We also offer various sized chest mounts in addition to suit and dress forms, if creating your own custom mount is not preferable.

A University Products How-To Tip: Encapsulation

One of the safest, most effective means of protecting a document from harm is through encapsulation. Encapsulation allows you to view and handle a document without exposing it to hazardous elements. The process involves the positioning of a flat document between two pieces of polyester film that are then sealed on all sides.

Clear Plastic Films
There are a variety of clear plastic films on the market. Some contain plasticizers or surface coatings that are inappropriate for encapsulation. They can and will react with the items they come in contact with, doing more harm than good. If you are planning to encapsulate, be certain you are using inert polyester. The material you choose should be free of plasticizers, or surface coatings of any kind.

Sealing the polyester also involves specific methods and materials. Heat sealing and ultrasonic welding equipment is available for adhesive-free sealing of polyester. However, the price tag for this type of equipment may be prohibitive for the average collector. The alternative is to use a double sided pressure sensitive tape. The tape should feature a stable acrylic adhesive such as 3M’s No. 415 Polyester Transparent Tape.

Pre-Formed Encapsulation
An alternative to buying expensive equipment or using adhesive tape is to purchase pre-formed encapsulation units. They are available in sizes and styles that will accommodate items of just about any size. If you plan on encapsulating a small quantity of items, this may be the most economical and time saving approach. Should you choose this route, be sure, once again, that the encapsulation units you purchase are made from an inert polyester.

Research has shown that encapsulation can increase the rate of deterioration of an acidic document. A qualified conservator can determine if a document is acidic and also perform a deacidification treatment if it is required.

Besides the protection factor encapsulation provides, static electricity inherent in polyester film will hold a document in place. Worn and fragile documents benefit greatly from this static charge since it helps hold torn pages together. The downside is the same charge will attract some mediums, such as charcoal or pastels, away from the document. A qualified conservator can determine if a particular document should or should not be encapsulated.

Once an item is determined to be safe for encapsulation, and the procedure is complete, your document is safe from dirt, pollution and fingerprints. Encapsulation will not, however, protect your autographed document from the hazards of ultraviolet light, and temperature and humidity extremes. Your encapsulated document should be stored out of the light in a climate controlled environment. Ideally, it should be stored flat in an archival quality box.