Criteria for choosing a conservator

Everyday, someone, somewhere makes the decision to have an item restored. While the reasons for restoring an item are as varied as the approaches to restoration, one thing is certain - the owner of the piece in question must eventually decide who to trust with the treatment, care and repair of their object. Finding someone willing to restore an item is, in actuality, the easy part - as one only has to examine the Comics Buyer's Guide or the Overstreet Annual Price Guide to find ads from individuals (and companies) offering restoration services. However in this day and age where everyone and everybody offers to improve the apparent condition of an item through restoration, knowing if the individual is qualified to do the work or even if they can be trusted with the safety of your piece is a far more difficult thing to determine.

In this hobby, a person's reputation is everything. Word of mouth (either positive or negative) spreads quickly as the hobby is fairly self-contained and everybody seems to know everybody else. "Good work" gets talked about, so does work that is "terrible" . According to the current experts in the hobby, "good restoration" is work that is virtually undetectable. The item in question looks like it just came off the rack with little or no damage to detract from the viewer's enjoyment of the material - in essence appearing (to use my favorite saying) "newer than new, whiter than white". Conversely, work that is readily detectable (either through the sense of sight or touch) is often denigrated as "amateur" or "unprofessional", regardless of the intentions, background or qualifications of the person doing the work.

If a person's intentions were to improve the overall appearance and esthetics of an item to a higher condition, then (and only then) does the system of classification currently used by the hobby have any validity. Indeed, in this scenario, the adage of "I can see the restoration, so it can't be good" rings true. If, on the other hand, the aim and intention of the treatment was to stabilize the item improving it's condition for the benefit of future generations, and not make an item appear newer than new, whiter than white, this classification system is no longer valid.

While quick and decisive, classifying restoration treatments on the basis of whether the repair work is detectable or not, serves only to belittle work that does not greatly improve the overall esthetic of the object, remaining readily detectable. Thus the current system gives rise to the possibility of a restorer who does work that looks incredible (but won't last beyond 10 years) becoming the person that everyone hears about while the conscientious professional conservator that makes sure the book will last for a good long time, but is not overly concerned with the radical improvement of the over-all esthetic, is relegated to the ranks of a "hack" or "amateur".

But the truth is "good restoration" does not necessarily mean good conservation. In fact, many of the techniques used in achieving a good looking restored item are often in direct conflict with the aims of conservation. Reports and evidence of "conservators of ephemera" causing extensive damage during the treatment of an item, all in order to improve the final esthetic appearance, are readily unearthed (for those taking the time to do a little honest and objective research) and include excessive cleaning, bleaching, overpainting, reglossing and the removal of original paper to improve the look and feel of a join or graft.

The truth is, many people practicing restoration do not have the proper classical training for the long-term preservation of the materials they are restoring. Instead, they have received their training through secondary or even tertiary sources and their knowledge of paper's working characteristics was gained through a trial and error process, during the treatment of several individuals' items. Truth is, reputation shouldn't be the only criteria in selecting the person you send an item to as a person's professional qualifications should also be taken into consideration.

Qualifications should give some idea of a person's training and direct experience in the treatment of the item or item(s) being submitted. A museum trained professional who's experience is in painting or ceramics, shouldn't be considered an expert in the conservation of paper. Additionally, professional associations or memberships in associations are also important qualifications, but should only be taken at face value (as anyone who pays their dues can become a member of an association). What is important is that the person's qualifications are indicative of a certain high level of knowledge about the item being treated. Also, qualifications and associations should serve to support a person's commitment towards the refining of their knowledge base and their interest in keeping current on the latest developments in techniques and materials within their profession.

However, qualifications are still no guarantee that an item will be treated with the respect that it deserves and qualifications will most certainly not prevent an individual from taking risks or short-cuts during the course of an item's treatment. As can be expected, items can be permanently altered or destroyed due to ignorance, abuse or an unfortunate mistake and if this happens (and it's happened to every restorer and conservator, no exceptions) the response of the person treating your item becomes very important and very telling.

There are about a dozen or so incidents I know of where clients had their books treated in such a way as the end product looked fantastic, but when the items were returned, it was quickly discovered that the books had been altered, destroyed or mutilated all without the knowledge or consent of the owner. These books had been treated in such a way as to be either trimmed, bleached, deacidified, extensively recolored and in some cases, redrawn - all without the owner's approval or awareness of what was being done. The clients were not advised about what had been done to their books and only by comparing pre-treatment color-copies with the post-treatment books, then and only then was the deception uncovered.

Anyone working in the field of restoration (or conservation) is ultimately under the employ of the owner of the item and it is the owner that should make the decisions about what is going to be done to their collectible. The owner has a right to know what has (or hasn't) been done to their piece. The restorer or conservator who treats an item is responsible for what happens to the item during treatment, but when the person treating an item removes their accountability, by lack of communication, and does not include the owner in the decision making process, the potential for abuse and deception is greatly increased. What is truly unfortunate is that these important elements (communication, accountability and responsibility) are seemingly sacrificed in the pursuit of producing restoration work that is considered acceptable. When an unfortunate mistake happens, or a treatment does not work out the way it should - the restorer (or conservator) has an obligation to inform the owner of the item and advise them on what has happened and what the next possible course of action should be. The restorer does not have the right to arbitrarily decide what is best for the book just to preserve their reputation. Involving clients in the decision making process is the sign of a true professional, whether it be in the medical profession, the law profession or even the conservation profession.

Determining the right person to work on your material is no doubt, a difficult matter. As more and more "conservators of ephemera" enter the marketplace and the advertising claims become even more similar, it is up to the collector to question and probe the reputation and qualifications of the person or company being considered. If your restorer/conservator gives good sound advice, is qualified to explain treatments fully and makes sure you understand what the benefits or detriments are of each and every treatment being discussed, then you are off to a good start. However, if the person you are talking to seems to just want your item, quotes you a price and doesn't make you feel like you're in control of any part of your items' treatment - you might want to start shopping around. . Ultimately, rely and trust your instincts. After all, whether it's a comic, a movie poster or some other valued and treasured item from the past, questions about the qualifications of the restorer, questions about the treatments being proposed and questions about the long-term side-effects of the treatments, should and must be asked.

By Tracey Heft

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