Back in June I posted a blog about prints that are found in old frames. One of the things I discussed was that many of these prints were in bad condition and needed "fixing up." I've had a number of follow up questions on this topic, so today I'll discuss in more detail the issue of print conservation and restoration.
The first thing to say is that for prints it is crucial that those with condition issues at least be conserved (the difference between conservation and restoration is that the former concerns not allowing the print to get worse and the latter with trying to take the print back to its condition before it started to deteriorate). I love the Antiques Roadshow and this program has been helpful in raising people's awareness of antiques and various issues related to antiques. However, there is one "lesson" people have learned which is sometimes misapplied to prints.
Anyone who has watched the program a number of times will probably have seen at least one segment where the appraiser comments that the item being examined was nice, but would have been worth considerably more had it not been restored. A table that would have been worth tens of thousands in "original condition," but now worth only thousands because it was cleaned and its patina lost. As a result of this, we often get people coming in to the Roadshow proudly showing us a print which they didn't restore because they wanted to preserve its value.
Unfortunately, the lesson about not restoring furniture does not apply to prints. The "problems" associated with furniture aging are not generally destructive of those objects; in contrast, the "problems" associated with the aging of prints often are destructive. Acid, mold, foxing, waterstains and many other problems one typically finds with prints will eventually cause those prints to be destroyed. Thus prints with aging issues, in contrast with furniture, do need to be conserved to retain their value.
A print that is acidic will have its paper continue to breakdown, eventually becoming brittle and falling apart. Foxing and mold will spread and will also lead to the eventual destruction of the print. Waterstains can cause the paper to weaken and eventually rot away. A print glued to a backing will be harmed both by the glue used, and also by being attached to a backing which likely will eventually fall apart itself, at the same time destroying the attached print.
What this means is that for almost all prints with condition problems, it is important to conserve them in order to preserve not only their value, but their existence. Sometimes the condition problems will not progress very quickly, so that the destruction of the print may be far off in the future, but these problems do not go away unless the print is conserved.
Restoration goes beyond conservation, by trying to return the print to its earlier condition and appearance. This is more a question of taste and value than conservation. One has to conserve a print for it to continue to survive, but once conserved a print needn't have its foxing spots or waterstains removed, the darkened paper lightened or whatever. Our usual policy is that "tasteful" or "moderate" restoration is desirable.
Certainly, in most cases, restoration increases the value of prints (again, unlike in many cases with furniture). For one thing, most conservation processes will restore the print at the same time, so if one sees a print with the appearance of condition problems, one assumes it is in bad shape. Also, one of the main purposes for which people acquire prints is for decoration and a print that has been properly restored looks better than one that hasn't.
Still, with prints some of the same factors come into play that cause furniture collectors to seek out antiques that don't look too pristine, that look like they are wearing their age. Many print collectors want their prints to look like antiques, not modern copies with bright white paper, etc. This means that any restoration done should be done with care so that the print is not over-restored. Foxing and stains can be removed and acidic paper lightened, but the print shouldn't end up looking bright white and spotless. Likewise, one can make repairs and fill losses, but there is nothing wrong with a print showing some signs of its age. This is a subtle matter and it is important before having any print restored that you and the restorer have the same idea of how you want the print to end up.
Conservation/restoration is a fairly expensive thing to have done. For a typical small folio Currier & Ives print, with just standard condition issues, it might cost about $150 to $200 to restore. Those prints with worse conditions issues (if they are laid down or badly stained, for instance) or prints of a larger size, will cost even more. This obviously means a serious expense for the owner of antique prints and it is something that is a regular concern for us at the Philadelphia Print Shop.
There are some prints where it just doesn’t make sense to spend the money to fix them up unless they have a lot of sentimental value. If a print is worth only $50 or so, then it seems ridiculous to pay $250 or more to fix it up. However, even if a print is worth only about the same as the cost of the restoration, or even a little less, it might make sense to fix up the print if you like it or it means something special to you. It is not always easy to find the same print in better shape, and antique prints do retain their value (assuming they do not deteriorate in condition), so it is reasonable to make the investment in preserving the print even if the value doesn't quite equal the cost.
Some people resolve this problem by trying to restore the prints themselves. We do not recommend that owners do this, as most of the means that non-experts use to "restore" their prints actually cause the prints harm in the long run. If the print is worth restoring, it is probably worth having a professional do it. If an owner really wants to do his/her own restoration, then do some reading and get the proper materials so that the job is done right. While we do not encourage non-professional restoration, a good resource for anyone interested in the subject is the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
A final few thoughts on this subject... First, you should keep this issue in mind when looking to buy an antique print. Many prints that you find in antique shops or at auction need restoration. You might, for instance, be able to buy a nice small folio Currier & Ives print at an auction for, say, $50, which might seem like a good deal when you know that a print gallery might sell it for $150. However, if you figure that you need to spend $150 or so to restore it, it becomes clear that this isn't such a good value.
Finally, we hate to see antique prints be destroyed by inaction. Certainly there are some prints of low value or that are relatively common where the cost of fixing them doesn’t make sense, but if you own an antique print that needs to be fixed and don’t want to pay to have this done, perhaps you should consider selling the print to someone who will fix it up and then buying something that doesn’t need any work. It is not good to simply ignore the issue of prints that have condition problems. Whatever value they currently have will leach away as the prints continue to deteriorate.