WHY PRESERVE, CONSERVE, AND RESTORE? – AN INTERVIEW WITH  SPECIALIST AND CONSULTANT PHILLIPPA DUNCAN

Juliana Caffé

 

With a BFA majoring in Printmaking, paper has always been the first language of the specialist and consultant Phillippa Duncan, for whom passion includes South African art of the 20th century, works on paper and prints. After spending a number of years working in the Fine Art auction world, Duncan started as an independent consultant.

In July of 2017, Duncan was invited to participate in the Preventive Conservation Week for Curators offered by the Michaelis School of Fine Arts in close collaboration with Iziko Museums. Here, she spoke about the importance of preserving, conserving and restoring works of art. Below are some questions kindly answered by Duncan.

 

To evaluate a work of art, what are the main items examined? In this evaluation, what importance given to the conservation of the work?

When establishing value of an item, there are many points which need to be taken into consideration.

Does the artist have an existing primary and secondary market? Did they exhibit regularly?

Were they awarded with prizes, residencies etc?

Did they study further, travel, collaborate? Is there an existing market for their work (exhibitions/sales/auctions)?

When looking at contemporary artists and their output, gallerists and dealers will look at all of the above when deciding on the listed prices for an item.

The same consideration will be used on the secondary market (resales/auctions).

And most importantly – quality over medium. A bad oil by Irma Stern is never going to get any better whereas an exquisite charcoal by the same artist, cared for properly during its ownership, will always grow and appreciate in value.

 

The loss or damage of a work is something that cannot be measured, in sentimental or cultural value, but it is something that can be insured. The insurance of works of art protects collectors, gallery owners, museums and exhibitions. In this case, what is the logic used to establish the value of the damage to the work?

Values on items should be undertaken by independent valuators with experience in that particular market. Calling in a generalist to undertake such a valuation is short sighted and often the result of someone wanting to cut costs. To establish the value of an artwork prior to the point of damage, the valuator will need to establish the market price for that piece. At this point a conservator can be called in to assess the damage and correctly advise regarding the restoration/conservation which is required. If the conservator is confident that the process will be wholly successful and not detrimental to the aesthetics of the work, then the valuator can be confident in the value which they place on the work.

 

How do you evaluate the art market in South Africa? In your opinion, galleries, museums and public and private collections here are aware of the importance of the proper conservation of the work?

Regarding the art market – the market on paper is very strong but this is commonly misunderstood in terms of a buying public. The top end of the market can probably be attributed to a small group of collectors not totalling more than two-hundred buyers.

The primary area where I find myself educating private clients is the conservation of their existing collections and future acquisitions. Owning art is not simply the act of purchasing but the proper care and maintenance of items during a collector’s ownership of said items.

Smaller museums are also points of concern given they are often run by enthusiastic volunteers who often have no background in art or the conservation thereof. This is particularly true with house museums in some of our smaller towns.

Large museums/galleries are aware of conservation and what needs to be done but this is often outside of their daily budgets and this will often fall to private sponsors of groups such as the Friends of the Iziko SA National Gallery.

 

For many, the care that one must take to maintain a work of art seems unnecessary. Could you give an example of a situation where care was not enough to avoid the damage?

Often damage occurs in a client’s home. The surface of an artwork is damaged by a household cleaning agent, something gets knocked into the surface of an artwork, something falls off a cabinet. In the 21st century the lack of awareness displayed by members of the public when viewing artworks in a museum/gallery space has seen artworks destroyed en masse. The most recent case was of a gallery visitor taking a selfie with a ceramic exhibition and knocking over a single plinth. Sadly, given the placement of the plinth, it resulted in an entire row of plinths and their items falling like dominoes. There is also the factor that humans have a wilfully destructive nature – incidents of toes being chopped off antiquities, deliberate defacing of artworks in museum surrounding. No matter the security measures in place – once the physical act has been carried out it cannot be undone. The Mona Lisa of course is now displayed behind many feet of protective glass.

 

Juliana Caffé is an Honours in Curatorship student at the Michaelis School of Art. For more interviews by her please click here.

Header image, even conserving brushes is important, taken by Lisa Truter graduate of the 2016 Honours in Curatorship class.