Thursday, June 4, 2009

Conservation of prints

I am off tomorrow for Atlantic City to do appraisals for the Antiques Roadshow. This is the beginning of filming for the fourteenth season of the program, which my partner, Don Cresswell, and I have worked on as print and map appraisers for all but the first year. I am a fan of the show, for I know relatively little about antiques outside our specialty, and from every episode I learn something new. Also, our regular appearances on the show have certainly helped increase recognition of our shop. However, there is one somewhat negative consequence that the show has had with respect to antique prints and maps, that is that it has inadvertently led some people to think that prints with condition problems shouldn’t be conserved.

The problem is that a fair number of times, appraisers have explained how, for instance, a highboy is worth $20,000, but would have been worth twice as much if it hadn’t been “restored.” The mantra that appraisers often cite is “don’t restore, because ‘original’ condition is more desirable.” This is absolutely true for antique furniture and some other antiques, but not for prints. I have been filmed a few times on the show remarking that this rule-of-thumb does not apply to prints and maps, but most people remember the story about the lost value due to restoration, without understanding that it doesn't apply to all antiques. At least once during every stop, someone will bring in a print to my table at the Roadshow and proudly tell me how they haven’t had the print restored so as not to loose any value. This is, of course, not the right thing for antique prints.

The basic issue is that for, say, furniture, the old stains, patina, worm holes, etc. do not threaten to harm the item. They do affect the appearance of the piece, but if not “corrected,” the issues will not cause the item to fall apart. For prints, on the other hand, condition problems affect not only the appearance, but also the survival of the prints themselves. Foxing, acid burns, the old wood backing on frames, tears, mold, and even waterstains can all cause further harm to a print. For most prints that have condition issues, if they are “left alone,” they will eventually be destroyed. Thus for an antique print with condition problems, conservation does not hurt value, but rather enhances value and can prevent its destruction.

There is, of course, a difference between conservation and restoration. The former is treating a print so that it will be preserved, that is, so that any harmful elements of its condition are removed. One can conserve a print and have it look just the same as it was before conservation. This is the minimum that a print collector should do. Most antique prints that one comes across “in the wild” will have harmful elements, usually at least acidic content, but also often foxing or mildew or the like (this is especially true for framed prints, the subject of a future blog). Such prints are often in acidic environments, from which they should be removed. And then tears and holes can also cause problems, for they are places a print can more easily be further damaged, and thus these should be repaired. I strongly urge all print collectors to make sure any prints they purchase are stable or, if they are not, to have them conserved.

So what about restoration, that is the “improving” of the appearance of a print. As discussed above, this sort of thing can significantly hurt the value of furniture. Does restoration hurt the value of prints? Over-restoration can hurt the value of a print. If a print is over cleaned or the color “enhanced,” so that the print looks “new,” then yes, the value can be lowered. However, as long as the restoration is done with sensitivity, it will almost always increase the value of a print, not lower it.

Why is this? Interesting question. I suppose some of it is the fact that antique prints often need conservation and even minimal conservation—-such as repairing holes or tears and deacidification--tends to “improve” the appearance of a print, so such improvement has a positive connotation for prints, rather than a negative one. I think also it is because many prints are used for decoration, and frankly, a sensitively restored print works better for decoration than one with spots and acid-burns.

In any case, our recommendation is that for every print which is purchased, that has not already been conserved, i) it should be examined and conserved for preservation if needed (and, of course, subsequently cared for properly), and ii) that there is no reason that the print should not be restored as long as it is done with sensitivity and not over-restored. The worst thing a print collector can do is to buy a print in bad shape and then keep it that way.


  1. very interesting and useful information -many thanks.

  2. Great useful article. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I think it's very interesting how easy it is for humans to generalize information and gloss important details.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.