While we would all like to only own works that are in perfect condition, often this is just not possible. Works created years, decades, or centuries ago may have been bought and sold numerous times, and each time they reappeared on the market, they may have been cleaned or restored. If the individual handling the restoration was an expert, then there was little chance of any damage being caused during the restoration process; however, this is usually not the case. Many times, works are handled by individuals unfamiliar with the specific artist’s materials, and that is when problems can arise – over-cleaning or skinning the paint surface, extensive in-painting, etc. In addition to the potential damage caused by a ‘bad’ conservator, there is the ever-present ‘accident’ factor. A work of art may have been damaged when it fell off the wall, while it was being moved, or when one of the kids threw something or stepped on it (seen that)! As dealers, we have witnessed many unusual things; the most unique was a work that was cut in half to make a pair of paintings!
When considering a work of art, it is important to know if it was restored and, if so, what was done? I remember having a conversation with a client, and they mentioned that they would “have to think long and hard before they bought a work of art that was re-lined” (a process in which a new canvas is affixed to the back of the old canvas). I explained to them that a re-lining is not necessarily bad and they should not discount a painting because of it. If the re-lining process was done for cosmetic, or for certain structural, reasons, then there is nothing wrong with acquiring the work. Over the years, certain pigments artists used begin to crack and lift. The only way to reduce the look of those cracks is to treat and re-line the painting (chemically treating the canvas and pigment so they relax – causing the lifting paint to flatten – and then adhering the old canvas to a new one to stabilize the work). There are also times when a painting’s tacking-edge (the unpainted part of the canvas used to hold it to the stretcher) has begun to tear, and the painting is no longer securely affixed to the stretcher bars. In order to repair this, a conservator may have to do a strip lining (affixing a narrow piece of canvas to all sides so the work can be reattached to the stretcher) or a full re-lining.
Of course, some linings are done to repair damages. If this is the case, then you need to know what type of damage occurred (small puncture, large tear, etc.) and where the damage is located. For my illustration, I need you to imagine that you are looking at a painting of a sailing ship. With marine paintings, it is important that the ship and its rigging are in excellent condition; if there are some areas of restoration in the sky or water, they will have little impact on its value. Collectors and many museums are often interested in the ship and are not too concerned with the background area. In other words, if the central focus of the painting (the ship) has been restored, it will have a greater impact on the work’s value than if the background areas have been restored. This is also true with figurative works. If there is some minor restoration in the background areas, but the figures are in good shape, there is not much to worry about. Please note that I used the words ‘some minor’ – you do not want to buy a work of art where extensive areas of the background have been restored.
With all that said, it is important to understand that condition is a key factor when considering and valuing a work of art – especially historical works. If you were lucky enough to find two almost identical paintings by an artist and one is in excellent or pristine condition, and the other has restoration, the one in better condition is going to be more valuable — and it should be.
Over-cleaning, damages, in-painting, and re-lining are just some of the things to be aware of when trying to understand and assess a work’s true condition. Sometimes they will have a great impact on value, and other times they do not.