How to Restore a Damaged Painting

https://www.barrons.com/articles/how-to-restore-a-damaged-painting-1526684342

2018-05-21_11-20-17

How to Restore a Damaged Painting

le-marin1
Detail of Pablo Picasso’s “Le Marin,” 1943, oil on canvas. ILLUSTRATION: COURTESY OF CHRISTIE’S

Collectors who learned through news reports that a painting owned by Steve Wynn was damaged before it was to be auctioned at Christie’s evening sale of impressionist and modern art on Tuesday likely took in a collective gasp.

The painting, Pablo Picasso’s 1943 self-portrait, Le Marin (The Sailor), was examined after the accident by outside conservators who “have made recommendations for the successful restoration of the painting,” Christie’s said in a May 13 statement. Wynn withdrew Le Marin as well as Picasso’s 1964 painting, Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil, from the sale.

The two paintings, as well as a third, were intended as a “kickoff sale” for Sierra Fine Art LLC, an art business Wynn created after stepping down from Wynn Resorts in February in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct.

But just how do you restore a masterpiece? And what does “successful restoration” mean? Can a work ever be restored to its original value?

Christie’s statement was optimistic on the outcome, but the answers will depend on how badly the work was damaged, where it was damaged, the quality of the restoration and, of course, the dynamics of the art market, experts say.

“Of course damage is damage, there’s a certain amount of loss of value,” says Larry Shar, president of Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. in New York.

Steve Wynn reportedly sold Picasso’s Le Reve for US$155 million in 2013, seven years after he had damaged the painting with his elbow. The price he received was about US$16 million more than he had expected to sell it at for before the accident.

Whether Wynn can achieve a similar result with Le Marin isn’t clear. The accident happened at Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza galleries on Friday, May 11, when an extension pole used for painting with a roller slid from a wall where it was leaning and fell, according to Michael Kosnitzky, a partner in the private wealth practice at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in New York, and an outside counsel for Wynn and his family. The pole was leaning against a wall in a “viewing area,” Kosnitzky says.

The attorney argues the accident was a “flagrant act of gross negligence,” arguing that a workman’s painting pole should not have been in an area where “multi-million dollar” paintings were unprotected. In the May 13 statement, Christie’s said Le Marin “was accidentally damaged Friday (May 11) during the final stages of preparation for Christie’s May 12-15 exhibition.” The auction house did not comment on Kosnitzky’s description of “gross negligence.”

Le Marin was to be a featured work of Christie’s evening sale of impressionist and modern art, carrying an “estimate on request” of US$70 million, according to the auction house. Christie’s estimated Picasso’s Femme au chat to sell between US$25 million and US$35 million.

Kosnitzky says the US$70 million estimate was a “floor, not a ceiling” on the work’s market value. “We believe it could have sold in excess of US$100 million,” he says, citing the fact  Picasso’s Rose Period Fillette a corbeille fleurie, 1905, sold during Peggy and David Rockefeller sale of 19th and 20th-century art at Christie’s on May 8 for US$115 million, with fees.

How to restore a painting

Collectors consigning their works to auction should take comfort from the fact that conservators like Lowy see very few accidents like the one Wynn just experienced, according to Shar.

“It happens on occasion, but only on occasion,” he says. “More often than not if you entrust a work to an auction house, particularly a work with a high value, it gets handled pretty carefully.”

Conservator Rustin Levinson, president of ArtCare Conservation, agrees, saying such incidents at auction houses are rare, but, she says, “accidents do happen.”

One factor in the potential repair of Le Marin could be the condition of the canvas, given the work was painted in 1943, Levinson says. Canvases become brittle and can tear more easily as they age. “The threads stretch and unravel,” Levinson says. If something went through it, she adds, the tear could be significant.

But if it’s a neat tear, “you can join it right up,” Levinson says.

How easily that’s done will depend on whether the canvas was “lined”—meaning a second canvas had been added to the back—or not. If a lining does exist, it will have to be removed before the painting can be repaired, a process that begins by stabilizing the paint with a “facing” that protects the paint, she says.

To replace or reweave a lining, though, is a major undertaking that could result in a “large loss of value,” Skar says.

Also important will be the success of “in-painting” or retouching the surface to restore color and detail. A plain surface can be more difficult to restore because the pigment has to be “right on the money,” he says. But, Skar adds, “if done very well and a buyer is not that particular, and not that much of a purist, (the painting) may be worth more” than it was before.

It’s unclear how much damage Le Marin suffered, what the loss of potential value in the work might be, and what would be involved in a repair. “All I can say is the adjuster is working on that,” Kosnitzky says.

Of course, a collector is unlikely to take a painting to a restorer unless it’s covered by insurance.

Auction houses often insure works “while in their care, custody, and control,” coverage that precludes a consignor’s own art insurance policy, says Sarah Johnson Court, managing director at VF GLobal Insurance Brokerage.

Christie’s consignment contracts have insurance provisions to cover damage and other contingencies.

While Kosnitzky can’t speak to how Le Marin was insured, he noted that Wynn, “having gone through this before in terms of damage, in terms of insurance issues and repairs, is a sophisticated business person and he made sure he was properly protected when he entered into his contract with Christie’s.”

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