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The Lives of Documents and Works of Art on paper: different types of damage and artifactual history

It is truly amazing the variety of conditions and previous repairs I encounter in my conservation practice. Clients often bring art work and documents in that have suffered damage due to mishandling or previous well-intentioned repairs over the years.

One example would be a lithograph by Marc Chagall, an early Modernist whose work embodied the Cubist and Expressionist movements. This breathtaking lithograph was folded into quarters for easier storage in an envelope.

A damaged lithograph by Marc Chagall.

Given the breathtaking beauty of the image, and the fact that it was so clearly created by one of the great masters of fine art, it is difficult to imagine what the person responsible was thinking. It is clear they did not know what they were looking at when they made the decision to fold it up and store it in an acidic envelope. Treatment will involve washing to swell the fibers, as well as lining and drying under tension to work out the fold lines as much as possible.

Sometimes, a previous owner has applied repairs with good intentions, attempting to prevent further damage to a historical artifact. However, often the materials used to make the repair will cause damage over time. For instance, this Jefferson Davis flier has had tape repairs applied generously to tears along fold lines.

Jefferson Davis Flier.
A close-up of non-archival tape repairs applied to the Jefferson Davis flier.

Over time, the tape will degrade and become acidic, causing stains and embrittlement to the document. The areas where the tape has been applied will deteriorate rapidly in comparison with the rest of the flier. Part of my job as a conservator will be to remove the previous tape repairs & associated adhesive residue, and mend the losses with archival tissue to make the paper whole again.

Often, the enclosures or framing packages crafted to house and protect a document or artwork will cause damage over time. Consider this letter written by Robert E. Lee:

A letter written by Robert E. Lee that has been placed between two plates of glass and subsequently damaged.

This historical document was placed between two pieces of glass that were taped together. At some point, the tape was exposed to water, and the moisture reactivated the tape adhesive along the edges of the glass. The adhesive then migrated in between the pieces of glass, bleeding into the document and adhering the letter to both glass plates. Then, at a later date, the glass package was dropped accidentally and it cracked, causing further damage to the document. Treatment to remove the broken glass and adhesives will involve the careful application of humidity and organic solvents.

It is also not uncommon to encounter damage in framed pieces. One example is this beauty school certificate, which suffered water damage from the back due to a water leak on the wall it was hanging on.

It will need to be treated to reduce staining and discoloration.

Finally, many times inherent vice is an issue encountered in aging artwork. One example of inherent vice is this architectural illustration, which was drafted on watercolor paper which had been mounted to an acidic backing board.

Ultimately, the backing board must be removed if possible to allow washing & stain reduction of the artwork.

If you have a document or work of art on paper that requires the care of a trained conservator, feel free to submit an inquiry via the Contact form on my website:

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