Auction records were shattered this past November when Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” became the most expensive work of art ever sold at $450.3 million, more than twice the sale of the previous record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers.” But while the painting depicts Christ holding a crystal orb, a fortune teller’s crystal ball would be more helpful in predicting how much more the painting could have fetched had art conservation experts maintained the work in better shape. Aside from doubts about the piece’s authenticity, many critics cited its significant damage and extensive restoration, attributing its record-breaking sale to Christie’s salesmanship and marketing efforts, rather than the value of its condition.
Cracking this particular da Vinci code will take more than a Dan Brown novel or a Tom Hanks movie. To help decode the mysteries of art condition, Artrepreneur turned to Manoj Phatak, founder and CEO of ArtRatio. An engineer by trade, Phatak and his company design art conversation products and solutions and in a recent interview with Artrepreneur, he spoke about the importance of protecting masterpieces.
How Art Condition Converts into Monetary Value
As the most recent Deloitte and ArtTactic Art & Finance Report showed, it isn’t just the financial investment that drives the collection of art since many collectors purchase pieces for emotional reasons. And because of such emotional connections, a personal value is created, albeit a subjective assessment that can’t be translated into dollars. To determine monetary value, artnet identifies several different factors such as subject matter, rarity, and demand in making that assessment.
Still, it’s the art condition that ranks as one of the most important value-assessing factors. In order to properly evaluate condition, auction houses typically complete art condition reports which document any damage or unusual characteristics on each piece of art. The terminology to describe such damage is usually self-explanatory and self-evident: creases, fading, holes, and overpainting, the latter of which was infamously seen in the botched restoration of the Spanish fresco “Ecce Homo.” However, other changes in art condition could go unnoticed by the novice eye, such as margins trimmed during the framing process or excessive cleaning that removes part of the original media, better known as “skinning.”
Why Light Exposure Shines Brightest in List of Artwork Risks
While an art condition report lists examples of existing damage, a better list would be one identifying the factors that cause such damage in the first place. Topping that list of art condition-impacting culprits is light exposure, which can be destructive on its own (i.e., fading) but can also be the catalyst for a domino effect of other damaging factors. More light that enters a closed display case raises the temperature, which lowers the relative humidity, which lessens the water particles in the air and reduces the electrical conductivity. That builds up a static charge that can’t escape the closed display case. So what does all that mean for the art contained inside this theoretical case?
“If you have any kind of static charge buildup on the inside of a vitrine, it can’t go anywhere,” Phatak explains. “So it builds up and it builds up and at some point, you might have enough of an electrostatic field to lift off fragile media like charcoal or pencil.” And Phatak understands such risks to this type of media; pencil writing from the 1st Duke of Wellington appears on original maps of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, historical documents that ArtRatio has protected.
Light exposure is a common denominator in most art condition damage, but that doesn’t mean that it affects all materials or mediums in the same way. Shedding light on the topic of light exposure are organizations such as the International Commission on Illumination (abbreviated as CIE for its French name, Commission Internationale de l´Eclairage). In its 2004 technical report “Control of Damage to Museum Objects by Optical Radiation,” the CIE created a light response matrix that assigns a category based on a material’s sensitivity to light. For example, Category 4 comprises highly sensitive materials (i.e. silk and fugitive colorants) while Category 1 contains elements with zero light sensitivity (i.e. stone and most metals). Along with categorizing materials by light sensitivity, the CIE matrix also provides recommendations on the amount of time a material can be exposed to light before risking noticeable deterioration.
Light exposure and its resulting conditions aren’t the only risks that could impact art condition. Along with air quality and vibrations during transportation, Phatak points to pests and vermin as potential risks, especially for pieces constructed of organic materials, and for pieces stored in humid environments. Still, the biggest risks to art condition are the ones for which there is no prediction or protection: accidents.
“A couple of guys who don’t know anything about the works of art get hired to move an object around. They pick it up, one of them stumbles, and they drop it,” Phatak says. “You’d be surprised how often that happens.” Then again, maybe you wouldn’t be so surprised considering the costly destruction caused by everything from an art collector’s elbow breaking through a $48.4 million Picasso to a museum goer’s selfie knocking over $200,000 worth of sculptures.
How to Ensure the Lasting Enjoyment of Art Through Art Conservation Techniques
Until there’s a way to accident-proof life, art collectors and museums must turn to alternative means of art conservation. Phatak’s company ArtRatio offers one such solution with its exhibition cases and vitrines constructed with glass that only becomes transparent when someone is nearby. At all other times, the glass turns completely opaque to reduce light damage to sensitive objects. ArtRatio’s display cases also feature a patent-pending cloud-based system that monitors temperature, humidity, and light.
For those without access to museum-worthy display cases (or a museum-sized budget), art conservation solutions are still available. Professional framing company John Jones offers recommendations for long-term art display, such as keeping artwork away from heat sources, using dehumidifiers to lower humidity levels, and choosing artificial light sources that don’t emit UV. Another consideration is purchasing a separate insurance policy for your art collection, particularly after a 2017 that was the most costly disaster year for the U.S. Just remember that even insurance isn’t a fail-safe solution. “Insurance companies will insure you for things like damage in transit, fire, theft, or water damage. But curiously enough, they don’t insure you for any gradual changes in temperature or humidity,” Phatak warns. “And the reason for that is that they don’t know when it began.”
No matter if you purchase a professional art conservation product or DIY your own solution through online advice, remember that your art conservation strategy should never come at the expense of your enjoyment of it.
“Ideally, art conservation would mean you’ve put the object in a dark box in a climate-controlled room and then leave it, forget about it,” Phatak says. “But then, of course, nobody would ever see that art so you might ask yourself the question, ‘Why do you bother having art in the first place if you can’t view it and can’t enjoy it?’”