Emergency Art Restoration
Practical suggestions for salvaging Water Damaged Artwork and Collectibles
In the wake of the recent hurricanes in Florida and southeast USA, ConservArt continues to receive daily calls inquiring what to do with wet and damaged artwork, books, documents, photographs and collectibles. As a public service, we have compiled a short list of suggestions to help lessen the damage to these often irreplaceable belongings. We are working with the assumption that most people would have no access to sophisticated freeze drying, or vacuum drying facilities, or access to industrial dehumidifying equipment. Therefore, we will discuss only what can be readily accomplished at home without specialized tools or equipment: the air drying of possessions.
Since the range of damaged artifacts is limitless and each item is unique, the suggestions below must be considered only as a means of temporary salvage and certainly not as a substitute for item-specific advice from a professional conservator. It is important that you follow up and have your valuables inspected and treated by a conservator as soon as possible following the flood, so that any damage may be corrected. We at ConservArt will continue to respond to telephone and e-mail inquiries and offer in-studio consultations at no charge.
First things first
Find a secure area or room where you will store your valuables until they can be treated. This room should be dry and cool, with good air circulation. Temperature should be about 65 degrees with as low a relative humidity as possible. If possible, obtain and install a window air conditioner and some large, slow box fans to keep the air moving to prevent mildew growth. The expense is more than justified by the number of rescued objects. In an ideal world open wire shelves would be best to permit air access to all sides, so do whatever you can with the materials you have at hand to simulate that environment. Example; old window screens placed on top of a support made of two by four lumber make good drying trays and they may be stacked with more lumber, cement blocks, or bricks. Remember to work slowly and carefully, thinking out each step before actually handling any of your property. Wet artifacts are more vulnerable and can get damaged very easily. Proceed with caution!
As a general rule, take care of articles you consider most valuable first. These could be items that have the highest monetary value, as well as documents with high sentimental or evidence value like birth certificates, deeds, passports, etc.. Take these to a conservator as soon as possible, time is of the essence and often a few days of delay may make a big difference in the chances of survival of an artifact.
Next, deal with articles that survived with little or no damage and may be relatively easy to fix. Proceed to increasingly damaged pieces, leaving those in the worst condition to be finished last. Severely damaged items will need most of the work and resources and will have the least likelihood of acceptable restoration. Their chances of ever receiving treatment is slim, due to the unfavorable treatment cost to value ratio.
Dry Immediately! Don’t touch the surface! Do NOT blot or wipe! Keep it in the frame!
Maintain painting face up in a horizontal position, especially if you notice flaking. Transport with minimum of vibration or shock to prevent any losses of detached paint film. Do not stack anything on top of a painting, or allow anything to poke into it from below. The canvas can become stretched out, torn or punctured.
Never lay a painting face down, or attempt to press down lifted paint. Don’t touch surface even after painting is completely dry. Call a conservator for specific instructions; you need a professional’s help here.
Framed prints, watercolors, drawings, documents, works on paper, etc…
If the artwork is damp, remove from frame and mats, and place paper towels or plain unprinted newsprint between the individual works. Change frequently and allow to air dry flat.
For stacks of ledger sheets, manuscripts, loose papers, etc., spread out on absorbent paper towels or newsprint to absorb excess moisture, then stack with a dry paper towel between every five to ten sheets and store flat. Keep replacing paper towels as needed and flip stacks over each time you do.
Stand damp books with their spine facing up, supported by their covers slightly apart and pages fanned and hanging. Every few hours fan the pages. When mostly dry, lay book down and make a stack with cooking parchment paper separating each book and weigh down, so the books may dry flat. Soft cover books may be handled like manuscripts above.
Unfortunately, books printed on coated papers with pages already stuck together have very little chance of salvage. If you can separate the pages, insert wax paper sheets between each page and fan frequently until dry.
Books with leather bindings and rare books
Isolate covers from text pages by inserting a sheet of plastic between them and put paper towels or newsprint between pages, changing frequently. Don’t try to force the book shut, because you will damage the binding. Consult a conservator as soon as practical.
Remove photos from frames immediately while still wet. Do not wipe or try to blot photos, as the emulsion will be damaged. If the photos were damaged by dirty rising water, rinse them gently in clean cold water in a tub or sink. Place them on paper towels face up and allow to air dry. Do not stack photographs!
If the photos are already stuck to the glass, don’t remove them, but let them dry as they are. Remove photos from albums if possible, and dry as above. For formal wedding albums with bound, double sided pages, place wax paper between each page and alternately expose each page to the air until the album is mostly dry, then close album, weigh down and allow to dry completely. Make sure the pictures are NOT touching each other, or else they will stick together, ruining the album!
Take care of prints before negatives. If negatives are wet and dirty, rinse them in cold water, but be careful not to touch the emulsion side. When clean, place them on dry paper towels with their emulsion side up. Do not stack as they will stick together and become unsalvageable. Medical x-rays can be rinsed in cold water and air dried face up on a paper towel.
Movie film or microfilm
If the film is wet, fill the film can with cold water, or put film in zip-lock bag with cold water and take to a film processor for washing and drying.
Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes
These old photographs are usually in a velvet and brass case, and are made on two sheets of glass, or one sheet of glass and one sheet of metal. If water has penetrated between the picture, it will need to be taken apart and air dried with emulsion side up.
Preserve all broken fragments or ornaments. Move frames by handling them from their underside only. Do not wipe, touch the surface or any softened ornament. See directions on oil painting for more handling tips. Keep the frame face up and allow to air dry. If surface develops cracks or begins to flake, consult a conservator immediately.
You never actually own a work of art; you merely take care of it for the next generation.