Conservation Preserves Your Art

Time and use take their toll on precious artwork


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Conservation is a synthesis of art and science: it requires the application of manual skills and scientific knowledge together with artistic and historic sensitivity. The professional conservator uses the knowledge of fine art techniques, chemical solvents and state-of-the-art equipment to stabilize, repair and preserve works of art. In addition to treatment of damaged pieces, a qualified conservator helps preserve the value of art through analyses of art collections, maintenance recommendations to prevent deterioration and disaster recovery assistance.

Conservators strongly recommend art collectors take precautions to preserve the value of their collection and protect it from deterioration. This is called collection care. To provide collection care it is important to know the agents of deterioration. Some common agents are humidity, light, temperature, dust, insects and humans. Too-low humidity extracts water from some materials and causes paper and leather to become brittle, glue and paste to dry out, and wood to warp and crack. Too-high humidity results in the absorption of water which corrodes materials, generates mold and softens adhesives. Rapid changes in humidity cause materials to swell and contract.

Wood cracks, bends and twists. Oil paintings crack and flake. Salts within the object dissolve, migrate and recrystallize on the surface. For arid and semi-arid environments such as New Mexico, where objects have already adjusted to the dry atmosphere, collectors need to protect from accidental contact with water from roof leaks, overhead pipes, and rain from open windows. Avoidance of extreme humidity changes is highly recommended.

Luis Neri Zagal

Luis Neri Zagal
Prior to treatment, tests are
performed to ensure safe conservation.
Italian Panel Painting, 19th C
New York State Bureau of Historic Sites

Fluctuating temperatures cause materials to expand and contract as temperature rises and falls. This is more problematic with objects containing two or more substances, such as a retablo, that respond to temperature changes at different rates. High temperatures cause mold to form, especially if the object is in a dark and poorly-ventilated area.

Light causes serious damage: fading of colors, weakening of fibers and oxidation of materials. Documents, textiles, watercolor or other organic substances are especially sensitive to the ultraviolet components of sunlight or fluorescent light. Keep objects out of direct sunlight and use filters to screen out the ultraviolet components to slow the deterioration process.

Dust in an abrasive substance which disfigures objects. Improper removal of dust accelerates wear and tear on the object's surface. If possible, keep objects in dust-tight storage or in exhibition cases. Seek the advice of a professional conservator prior to dust removal.


Disaster:before treatment
Disaster:before treatment

Disasters can be treated!
William and Mary Chair (detail) 17th C
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal
Western Kansai Province
Congo 1910-1930

Insect infestation is a real emergency situation. The damage inflicted by insects can be rapid and irrevocable. They eat sizing on paper, glue in bindings, cloth, hair, feathers and bore tunnels in wood. The most common destructive insects include various species of beetles, clothes moths, silverfish, cockroaches and wood worm. Evidence of infestation include fine powder collecting below the object or holes in textiles or wood. Reduce the risk of infestation with insect-tight storage cabinets, good housekeeping, and fumigation of the building.

Careless handling and well-intentioned cleaning attempts are some of the principal human hazards. Even clean hands can leave a residue of corrosive oil and moist salts. Limit the amount of handling of an object and use gloves whenever possible. Do not lift it by fragile protruding parts. Avoid wiping away dust or cleaning, especially with soap and water. If you are concerned about your collection and the preservation of its value, have a conservator perform an analysis of the condition of your collection. A conservator will advise you of potential problems, provide a regime for protective maintenance, alert you to emergency situations and suggest treatment to prevent further deterioration.

The selection of a conservator is critical. A conservator should have a broad range of experience, have undergone extensive training and be a member of the American Institute for Conservation.


The Institute requires professional conservators demonstrate professional competence and adherence to a code of ethics and guidelines for practice. In the course of treatment, a conservator may not add or remove any materials that might alter or adversely affect the original structure, appearance or effect intended by the artist. A conservator documents the examination and treatment of an object with written and photographic records.

The Institute categorizes their members as:

Fellows: Conservators with an undergraduate degree plus three years of graduate-level education in a conservation-related field plus a minimum of seven years of experience. Must submit evidence of sustained high-quality professional skills and of ethical behavior.

Professional Associates: Practicing conservators with an undergraduate degree with at least two years of basic conservation training and a minimum of three years of conservation experience.

The selection of a conservator is critical. A conservator should have a broad range of experience, have undergone extensive training and be a member of the American Institute for Conservation.

Associates: Members interested in the field of conservation or already working in the field.

In addition to their credentials, a conservator will have, for your review, photographic documentation of conservation treatments they have performed. The review of the appearance of objects after completed conservation treatments provides one indication of the quality of work performed. Another is the method used to treat the object. The goal of conservation is preservation of an object's integrity and value. A conservator will provide a total-care approach to the conservation of collections and individual art works by improving an object's appearance, reducing the likelihood of further deterioration and advising collection care approaches for preservation. The American Institute for Conservation maintains a referral system to help the public and private institutions locate and select professional conservation services. The referral system provides users with an informational brochure and a list of conservation professionals in country.


Gilded Eagle
18th C Private Collection
Conservators clean in small sections
to control the treatment process

Referral information is available from:
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works remote
1717 K St. NW, Ste 301
Washington, DC 20006
202-452-9545 PHONE
202-452-9328 FAX
In New Mexico, inquire about conservation professionals and services at museums and at galleries that specialize in fine art.

Thanks to Luis Neri Zagal, MA, MFA: Fellow, American Institute for Conservation and
Rebecca de Neri Zagal, MS, Neri Zagal Fine Art Inc.
Providing conservation and restoration of historic and contemporary art in
Albuquerque, NM
Phone: 505-830-0240

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13

Related Pages

Appraisal of Art: What's the Big Deal? article
White Gloves: Behind the Scenes . . .

Conserving Works of Art on Paper article

Collector’s Resources

Looking at Appraisal altgif Feature article by Philip Bareiss |

Santa Fe

Alan Barnes Fine Art rem 402 Old Santa Fe Trail - next to The Pink | 505.989.3599


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