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What Dirty Stuff Is On My Artwork?! Two sad stories and 3 tips what not to do

During Cleaning/Removal of grime and Yellowed Varnish
What Dirty Stuff Is On My Artwork?! - 3 Tips of what NOT to do!

A question I often get asked, "How do I clean my___________? My answer is a LONG list of sad stories of cleaning lady's "gentile" or "light" cleaning techniques and dealers trying to save a buck. And yesterday, I got another such story to tell you:

I go to this lady's house who has a painting in poor condition that she wants me to look at. When I get there, she shows me a landscape painting by Jack Wilkensen Smith (worth about $100,000.00 – go to www.faclappraisals.com) that is flaking everywhere and looks really sad. I ask her to tell me about the history of the painting and she says, "The painting used to be so beautiful. It looked perfect except it looked dingy." I asked what happened to it? "Well, I followed the artist's instructions exactly but I don't understand what happened." I was puzzled about her following the artist's instructions because he died about 75 years ago! The lady says, "The artist left a cleaning recipe written on the back of the painting."

This I gotta see. So I helped her get it off the wall and sure enough, there, written on the back of the painting in pencil were instructions on how to clean the painting written by the artist: "Take a cup of Ivory Soap flakes, dissolve them in two cups of warm water and wash the painting with a rag. Wipe clean with another clean wet rag."


So, the result was massive cracking and flaking, whitening or blooming of the paint and varnish. Add to that distressing situation a loss in value of at least 25% that even a $3,000.00 restoration/conservation effort won't recuperate completely.

You can't really fault the ignorant woman for following the artist's instructions but now, YOU know better! This kind of thing really makes my heart hurt.

Cleaning a painting… or any heirloom is NOT the type of thing you just do with a bottle of Pledge, Windex, 409 or any off the shelf product.

Professionals do a test to see what the problem is, make sure the original surface (paint) is stable, go slow enough not to get into trouble. If you are hell bent on doing something yourself, at least ask a professional for some advice and know your limits.

Which reminds me of a man who looked me up to ask for some advice: He had a really beautiful small 19th century parlor scene appraised for $25,000.00 and he wanted to clean the yellow varnish off. I did a couple of cleaning/solubility tests with a Q-Tip and a minuscule amount of solvent. I quoted him about $500 to do the job but the price was immaterial: he was a do-it-your-selfer. He saw that I was using a certain solvent for the tests but I warned him that the solvent I was using would attack the varnish that was mixed into the original paint and if he tried to clean this painting himself he WOULD damage the painting!

Next time I saw him, he showed me the painting that had been stripped of original paint and unrepairably damaged. The value of the once very beautiful artwork had to have been compromised at least 80+%. I got really mad at him reminding him of my warning. Then he threw it back in my face and said that the damage was my fault because I wouldn't show him how to do it! What planet are some people on??!!!

Anyway, take what you can from these examples. As you can see, there are several lessons to be learned:

Tip #1 Never use off the shelf products to clean your artwork, antiques and heirlooms

Tip #2 Get professional coaching before you get into it… and take a clue!

Tip#3 If you don't be careful with these treasures from the past, you will be responsible for ruining them and suffering the financial loss.

These historical, meaningful, beautiful items pass come to us from the past… and then pass through our care to the future. Be a good curator while they are in your care and responsibility.

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Scott M. Haskins
Title: Author, Art Conservation/Restoration, Pets and Heirlooms, Art Damage, Expert Witness
Group: www.fineartconservationlab.com
Dateline: Santa Barbara, CA United States
Direct Phone: 805-564-3438
Cell Phone: 805 570 4140
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