Antique Rehab: Restoring History



By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter



The landscape painting features graceful, feathery trees beside a mountain lake, with pale purple rocky peaks rising in the distance. Halfway up the nearest foothills, a nasty gash jumps out in the middle of the canvas. Something or someone had penetrated the center of the picture — a careless mover, an energetic 3-year old, sloppy storage — whoever the culprit, the owner wants it fixed and so brought it to The Conservation Center on North Wolcott Avenue. When completed, the damage will vanish.



Punctured landscape oil painting.                                    Amber Schabdach, Senior Paintings Conservator.


Amber Schabdach, Senior Paintings Conservator, described the process: “Under the microscope we will basically take tweezers and fine tools and line up every little thread to try to take it back to the right orientation. We weave all the fibers back together, dot some glue into it and locally heat it up right where those threads meet….it almost disappears.” Then inpainting will hopefully make the tear invisible. And this bit of conservation magic is a relatively simple case.




Perhaps like the owner of this painting, you have a personal treasure: a crumbling family bible, a yellowing cross-stitch embroidery done by a great, great grandmother, or a fading photograph of your great grandfather in need of attention. Maybe a rising creek at the rear of your property inundated your dining room in two feet of water, damaging your Chippendale chairs. These are just a few of the kinds of restoration challenges that The Conservation Center deals with on any given day.

On a recent visit to the West Town facility, this reporter watched conservators work on such diverse projects as the torn landscape mentioned above, a set of fragile African flags, a peeling early 20th-century toy bus, and a fire-damaged Italian genre oil painting.

Under the direction of CEO Heather Becker, The Conservation Center has grown to become the largest and most comprehensive private art conservation laboratory in the country with an international staff of 30 experts. Homeowners, museum curators, collectors and anyone with a special object in need of restoration have brought thousands of objects to The Conservation Center over the past 36 years. Some 300 restorations are underway at the present time.


Heather Becker, CEO of The Conservation Center.

Becker is an artist in her own right. With a degree from the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied at the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy, where a conservator working on a chapel mural inspired her.  She researched conservators in Chicago and started her career at The Conservation Center, then a small local firm, located in River North and owned by Barry Bauman. One of its largest projects involved restoring damaged collections at The Chicago Historical Society (now The Chicago History Museum) when a broken water main flooded its storage area in 1986. Becker bought the company in 2004 with a Small Business Loan and advice from such Chicago luminaries as Norm Bobins and Marshall Field V, who would later join her advisory board.  “As a young entrepreneur, I would get advice on finance and real estate and operations and all these other areas I knew very little about.” As the business grew, in 2012 she purchased a 19th-century warehouse, formerly used to store gold, on North Wolcott Avenue and worked with architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang to turn the space into state-of-the-art restoration facilities. “It’s very special every day walking around and talking to the conservators and seeing from day to day their progress…it’s all about the process of what we do and that I think is one of the most fascinating things about running a small art enterprise like this,” she said.


The Conservation Center’s 4th-floor laboratory.

Finding the artisans who can do the work can be challenging. “It is true that there are fewer and fewer people going into fields like this where it historically was passing down the knowledge and experience from one generation to the next,” said Becker. Although there are programs for teaching these skills, people need to become very specialized. Developing the skills and the artistic eye to see an object’s potential takes years of experience.

The variety of challenges facing a conservator is seemingly unlimited. A museum may send a recently acquired donor’s personal collection in need of preservation. An individual may have an antique picture frame with a broken corner. Most dramatically, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the California wildfires, and the hurricanes that hit Houston have sent work to The Conservation Center. Becker notes that such natural disaster work can be particularly meaningful. “The staff finds working on disaster situations very rewarding because they feel they are making a positive impact.”


Damaged painting by Arturo Ricci (1894-1910)

A painting badly damaged in a house fire has recently been successfully restored. The painting, by Italian artist Arturo Ricci had, according to The Conservation Center’s newsletter, “many tears and punctures and large areas of loss in both the paint layer and canvas. The piece was burdened not only by age-related mechanical cracks and flaking paint but also tenting and blanching paint from water exposure, as well as blistering near the top of work.  Moreover, several pieces of canvas had detached entirely from the painting.  The natural varnish on the painting had discolored, and the surface of the piece had a heavy layer of soot and fire debris.”

Associate Paintings Conservator Rebecca Vodehnal explained, “This one was a challenge and a joy to work on…it’s family piece and meant a great deal to the owner, and she was just heartbroken about it.” The repair process is detailed in the newsletter: “First, Rebecca locally consolidated the paint layer using a conservation-grade adhesive. To protect the paint layer during the structural work, she faced part of the painting using Japanese tissue and adhesives. Next, the piece was surface cleaned using a soft brush and vacuum to remove loose grime and soot on both sides of the piece…” And this was just the beginning. Vodehnal estimates that she spent over 150 hours over many months restoring the painting. A cardinal rule of conservation is to do only reversible work and to always permit an expert to see where the restoration work was done. Using UV light, Vodehnal revealed the black areas where new paint had been used.  “All the materials we use are reversible so that in the future if somebody has to redo part of this or all of it, they can start with the original,” Vodehnal explained.



UV light reveals part of the restoration.                                  Fully restored Ricci painting.


Similarly, painstaking work is done on other types of works, including paper and textiles. Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall and his wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce purchased a series of five Asafo flags from Ghana.


Asafo flag before receiving treatment.

Scott Dietrich, Associate Framer with restored Asafo flag.

Scott Dietrich, Associate Framer, explained that the flags were cleaned, repaired and stabilized and stitched down to a linen backing. “What you are seeing is actually hundreds if not thousands of stitches that are holding the entire flag in place,” said Dietrich. Natural linens and archival adhesive were used to create the framing, topped with low reflective, low static acrylic to preserve the flags. “The linen is stable; even the stretcher is sealed so [there is] no bleed-off from the wood.” The flags can now be safely displayed.


Light bleaching discolored paper.

Works on paper are often brought in with discolorations from water or mold.  If colors are stable, the work can be washed with hydrogen peroxide bleach. Katrina Flores, Associate Conservator of Works on Paper, lowers an adjustable light panel to further beach discoloration. “We can control it over the course of the day and keep repeating the process of washing the paper to reduce the discoloration,” she noted.


A circle cutter shapes mat material.

While modern technology is vital to many projects, sometimes traditional equipment is perfect for a given need. The Custom Framing Department uses a circle cutter, which is a blade mounted on a metal arm that enables the framer to create perfect curved shapes of matboard and other materials.



Lauren Luciano, Associate Conservator of Works on Paper, repairs the spine of a book.


“Technology is just one of the tools involved in conservation; human hands alone must do the sensitive and detailed work.” Lauren Luciano, Associate Conservator of Works on Paper, conserves a set of 300 19th century books sent by a library. “I’m going to add spine lining to strengthen the spine. I have some Japanese tissue prepped, strong and long fiber and flexible.”  Luciano uses weights to prevent the pieces from shifting while she works.



On another floor of the Center, 3-dimensional objects are restored and sometimes replicated. A privately owned Tiffany & Co. Egyptian Revival clock with accompanying obelisk from 1885 is similar to a set at The Metropolitan Museum in New York. The group originally had a second obelisk that might eventually be replicated. On this object, a former repair had to be undone. A portion of the slate on the side of the clock had been repaired with painted wood. The wood has been removed and replaced with new slate polished to match the rest of the clock.



Kevin Lawler,                                                                                                                       Frame with hand-carved insertion.         
Associate Conservator of Frames 
and Gilded Objects, repairs gold leaf.


Gold leaf plays a major role in many restoration projects. Kevin Lawler, Associate Conservator of Frames and Gilded Objects, has both mundane touch-up tasks and more complicated jobs like restoring an oval picture frame that had been dropped and broken into pieces. Kevin hand-carved a quarter section of the frame and imperceptibly reattached it before re-gilding the piece.




Josh McCauley, Senior Conservator of                                                                          Laminated paper board repair underway.
Frames and Guilded Objects


Toys were once not made of seemingly indestructible plastic. Josh McCauley, Senior Conservator of Frames and Guilded Objects works on a toy bus, whose exterior is made of laminated paperboard. Apparent water damage has caused the paper layers to separate and peel back. “I’m introducing an acrylic adhesive that will be flexible; this is called consolidation.” The goal is not to return the bus to its original condition but to stabilize the piece.


Shipping warehouse.


While The Conservation Center staff sometimes work on location, most items are brought to the company’s laboratories. Keeping track of hundreds of objects in various stages of restoration is a logistical puzzle. A sophisticated barcode system keeps track of everything. An object is given a barcode label when it arrives in the shop that enables tracking throughout its restoration and return to its owner.

Satisfied customers are effusive. One of The Center’s most enthusiastic clients is Lawrence Lewis. Lewis purchased a pair of wooden sculptures a number of years ago from the widow of a sculptor who lived and worked in the Indiana Dunes. Over the years, the sculptures had dried and cracked. Lewis sent them to The Conservation Center. He is thrilled with the results, “[the restoration was] done so artistically the whole piece looks better!”

In the next few years, Becker anticipates a continuation of new challenges. Learning about new techniques is an ongoing process. ”You never want to rest on what you know; you have to constantly be challenging yourself to innovate and learn new things in order to stay relevant.” In order to be effective when working on the impact of a large disaster — which could mean thousands of pieces at one time —Becker says it’s important to understand what makes each piece unique. “There are lots of ethical concerns with the field because each piece is so different, and you really have to think through in advance how far you want to push a treatment.”

Becker’s advice to the rest of us? Check that UV glazing protects your paintings and prints. The most common mistake: old framing materials like acidic mats, plain glass and old hanging hardware. You don’t want to put things in a bathroom or over a fireplace or in an area next to a vent, as temperature and humidity fluctuations are major concerns. Consistent temperature is important and turning down the temperature when you travel can stress artwork. But if it’s too late for your collectibles, The Conservation Center is here to help.