How Serious Art Collectors Care for Their Collections

We asked experts to weigh in on the best way to care for paintings, sculpture, photographic prints and other fine artworks.

A man sits looking at a phone in front of a wall of framed artworks
Hiring a conservator is a smart investment every art collector should consider. JSB Co.

Art and antiques are not a one-time investment. Begin collecting art and you’ll quickly discover there are myriad other associated costs beyond the price of a piece: you might need to insure your fine art or ship your fine art, and you’ll certainly want to spend the money to care for it. Art is, after all, meant to last lifetimes—and to grow in value. But that can’t happen if works are neglected and allowed to deteriorate (something nearly all works are prone to, given time). Knowing how to care for the works in your art collection is no less important than understanding what to buy and for how much.

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Dealers are often hesitant to discuss the kinds of care the objects they are selling will need as they don’t want to scare potential buyers away, but savvy collectors can obtain much of the information they’ll need by talking with museum curators or conservators. Many are happy to make the time to speak with curious art collectors as a way of scouting out future acquisitions for their institutions.

That said, there’s also plenty you can learn about caring for fine art by reading books on the subject, which many museum libraries have on their shelves. It stands to reason as the institutions that house the world’s greatest collections of art and antiquities have much at stake when it comes to conservation and invest accordingly—and collectors can learn from them.

Step one is knowing what can go wrong

Most museums, for example, have high-tech temperature and humidity monitoring systems controlling the interior environment. “In a perfect world, art sits in a dark room that is heat and humidity controlled,” Amber Schabdach, head of painting conservation at The Conservation Center in Chicago, Illinois, told Observer. “Obviously, that’s not how people live.” Most people periodically open and close windows in the spring and fall, and turn on the heat or air-conditioning in the winter or summer. That creates rapid fluctuations in heat and humidity that may, in the case of paintings, affect the canvas, the stretcher, the paints and the varnish, each of which expands and contracts at different rates. In high humidity, a canvas expands, causing a slight dimensional change. The paint layer, however, does not swell to the same degree and then cracks, permitting more moisture to enter, leading to further cracking later on. If this situation is not corrected, the bond between the paint and the canvas will loosen and the paint can begin to flake off.

Works on paper also react negatively to high humidity. The paper, as with all wood, tends to expand in moist environments, which results in wrinkling and discoloration. The most common reddish-brown discoloration is called “foxing” and is caused by copper or iron ions reacting in the presence of mold or bacterial growth. Light is another seemingly benign environmental factor that can be seriously detrimental to artwork. All objects are made up of molecules, and light energy can cause those molecules to separate. When that happens, it releases acidity, which is a product of the reactions, and that eats away at canvas and paint, causing fading.

SEE ALSO: Artist Alison Saar On the Making of Her Olympic Sculpture in Paris

Still, Schabdach noted, care can be taken to minimize the problems that changing environmental conditions may cause in precious objects. There are some easy, practical ways that conservators recommend to collectors. Don’t put artwork in front of windows that receive direct sunlight, as that light will cause the pieces to heat up and lead to fading. One can also put ultraviolet filters on windows and use ultraviolet conservation glass on framed artworks to protect them. Prints and paintings should not be hung above a fireplace (wood-burning or gas, as fireplaces will naturally draw in dirt and dust) or even on the same wall as a fireplace since that wall will heat up when the hearth is in use. “I’m not going to say that you should never use the fireplace,” Schabdach said. “Just think about the art, too.”

Another no-no is placing art on an exterior wall of a house as the interplay between the cool air of the outside and the warmer air inside may generate some form of condensation on the art. And “don’t put artwork in a bathroom or a sunroom… don’t put them in an attic or basement,” said Monique Fischer, a photography conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts. Perhaps obvious but worth pointing out. Less obvious: Many people believe that they are showing off their art to its best advantage by putting it in frames to which a light in a brass holder is attached. Don’t. The heat generated by the lamp can fade colors and may even burn the canvas or paper itself.

Protecting artwork at home

The temperature in most museum galleries ranges between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, with the relative humidity set at 55 percent, plus or minus five. Heat and humidity sensors—hygrometers—can be purchased online or at hardware stores at prices starting at $20. Homes in the Northeast tend to be dry and a little overheated in winter, requiring a humidifier, while the Southeast is more frequently damp and in need of a dehumidifier.

After humidity, light is the major scourge of art, thanks to damaging ultraviolet rays. We think of the impact of sunlight on art but fluorescent lights also give off ultraviolet rays. Regular light bulbs, or incandescent lights, are the least harmful as they largely emit heat, which is easily diffused in a room.

For Adam Novak, an art conservator in New York City who specializes in works on paper, the framing of artworks is the “frontline of defense,” as the frame, matte and glass “protects and buffers the art” from light, dirt and dust. “Framing mitigates some of the hazards in a room,” but not all, and he added that art collectors should choose framers wisely, selecting those who both demonstrate an understanding of the environmental risks posed to art and offer archival (focused on preservation) materials.

The galleries in museums devoted to works on paper are usually lit to scientific measurements of between five and eight “foot candles.” To determine whether or not one’s own rooms are brighter than that, use a photographic meter, something built into many 35-millimeter cameras. Setting the ASA scale to 100 and the f-stop at 5.6, the indicated shutter speed will be equal to the number of foot candles. If that number exceeds eight, the room should be dimmed or the artwork moved elsewhere. Keeping the light dim may make some rooms more difficult to read in without some redecorating—moving the art to walls at a distance from the lamps, for instance.

Almost all works on paper that are displayed on a wall should have protective glass in front, although the work should never touch the glass itself but be separated from it by an acid-free mat. The backing for a work must also be acid-free, not cheap cardboard and not wood, as paper can easily absorb resins, pollutants and acids from a backing and mat. Ultraviolet plexiglass is the best kind of protective glass in almost all cases, although it does have a slightly yellowish tinge that may affect the appearance of a work to a degree (regular glass often has a slightly greenish tinge). The only time never to use plexiglass is for a pastel drawing. Plexiglas has a static charge that acts like a magnet for dirt and dust. Pastels, which have a chalky consistency, can be problematic as the glass could pull the medium off the paper.

Caring for photographic prints

Most photographs are simply paper with a thin chemical coating, and they can be easily damaged by the environment or just rough handling. Too much direct sunlight and high humidity can activate certain chemistry, causing fading and discoloration, or warp the paper, which can lead to the image flaking off. Fingerprints are just as bad, as they contain oils, salts and amino acids that can damage both paper and image. Fluctuating humidity is the worst thing for prints, since both the paper and the emulsion expand and contract in humidity but not at the same rate. Shifting humidity levels can weaken the bond between the paper and the emulsion, leading to flaking.

Any black-and-white or color photograph has numerous microscopic layers of tones and pigments, but Polaroids have the most—somewhere between 30 and 40—which can be seen when a picture is cut in a cross-section and placed under intense magnification. The essential layers are blue, red and yellow, with a large range of related colors in between. These are composed of dyes that migrate from one layer to the next, forming the right combination and capturing the real-life color. What makes this process so unstable is that the dyes don’t always stop where they are supposed to but may continue to move around. They are especially prone to doing so in warmer climates.

With both Ektacolor and Polaroid, colors will change and fade the least when kept cold. Several institutions with large collections of color prints have installed refrigerated vaults in which to store both black-and-white and color prints and negatives. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the black-and-whites are stored at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 40 percent relative humidity, and the color vault is set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, 40 percent humidity.

There is a geometric increase in a color photograph’s life expectancy as you reduce the temperature. Going from 75 degrees to 60 degrees, a print’s life expectancy can be tripled. From 75 degrees to 40 degrees, it can be increased twenty or thirty times. Every reduction in temperature slows down the chemical reactions that cause the deterioration.

The inevitability of problems may lead to a certain defeatism in collectors of fine photography. Some conservators suggest that collectors purchase two prints of every image—one to display and the other to store and protect—and Fischer noted that the Northeast Document Conservation Center sometimes makes facsimiles for clients, but that can be very expensive and it assumes that adequate care cannot be taken in showing a photograph. Still, it is best to keep in mind that light, which creates a photograph, can also destroy it—as do other environmental factors. Closeting a work runs contrary to the reasons for having taken or purchased a photograph, but so does neglect.

Caring for sculptures and antiques

Sculpture and antique furniture react similarly to heat, humidity and light. Stone sculpture, for instance, is surprisingly porous and can absorb water vapor up to four inches deep, taking airborne pollutants into its interior. Eventually, when it dries out, the stone will “sweat” out these particles, which creates erosion on its surface, slowly eliminating parts of the detailing.

Bronze, too, reacts badly to humidity, turning green. Chlorides in the patina—the surface sheen of an object—occasionally react with high humidity to cause what conservators call “bronze disease,” or green mold-like spots that start appearing on a sculpture’s surface. There is not much one can do to permanently stop this condition, although regular cleaning and waxing of a work does provide some protection from humidity.

Wood is most severely affected by moisture in the air, expanding in high humidity and contracting in dry environments. Two adjoining wooden pieces in an object may expand against each other and knock themselves out of line, and the glue holding pieces together can dry up and cease to bind parts together.

And, as with paintings and works on paper, temperature and humidity controls can do a lot to keep three-dimensional objects looking new. Matthew Hayes, assistant professor of paintings conservation and co-chair of the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, said that “stable humidity is most important as fluctuations can cause object movement, cracks to wood, flaking paint, etc. Metals corrode at higher humidities so the ideal conditions for these are drier.”

Unlike paintings and drawings, however, wooden sculptures and antiques cannot be placed under glass to protect them from strong light. However, these pieces should be kept away from windows where direct sunlight would hit them because their veneer absorbs heat, which can lead to cracking.

Heat, humidity and light, while severe problems for sculpture and antiques, are not the only causes of damage, according to several other conservators Observer consulted. Simple human error also comes into play when it comes to antiques.

“They or the maid attacked it,” one art restorer said. “By that, I mean someone knocked it over and broke it. Or, and this is really worse, they have tried to clean it and have used steel wool or some abrasive spray wax like Pledge, which strips the patina right off.”

Other conservators point to collectors who applied oil paint to sculptures to cover up nicks, which then permanently changed the patina in bronzes or, in the case of stone works, penetrated the pores and created problems later on. Still other collectors have attempted to glue back on broken-off parts of an antique or wooden sculpture, using epoxy or Super Glue that doesn’t permit the object to “breathe” (expand and contract with changes in humidity), resulting in unexpected cracking or breakages in other areas of the piece. In the best cases, the results of inexpert gluing are crooked areas or statues with one leg now a bit too long. Conservators not infrequently have to re-break sculptures and furniture before they can make repairs.

Hiring a conservator is an investment

The cost of hiring a conservator ranges widely, depending upon the materials and amount of time involved in a restoration, but most charge by the hour, starting at $100 per hour and rising from there to $1,000. The Northeast Document Conservation Center charges $225 hourly when working with private collectors (more for institutions), with a $1,000 minimum. Most work done at The Conservation Center costs between $100 and $200 per hour. Samantha Springer, owner and principal conservator at Art Solutions Lab in Lake Oswego, Oregon, told Observer that her clients tend to have large and valuable collections. “My regular clients need a warehouse to store their collections. I think if a collector is serious about preserving their artwork and especially if they are thinking of their collection as an investment, hiring a conservator as early as possible is helpful.”

Collectors would be wise to ask questions of the dealers from whom they purchase objects and of museum conservators who, if they don’t have immediate advice, will be able to refer art and antique owners to appropriate sources of information. Here, asking the right questions of the right people is the first step in taking the right actions—something every collector who values their artwork should be ready to do.

How Serious Art Collectors Care for Their Collections