DIY or Hire a Pro?

An Art Conservator Walks You through the Process

By MJ Davis, Paper Conservator in Private Practice and Lead Trainer, American Institute of Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team

Photo: David Gale Studios

When your art has been damaged in a disaster, whether to try responding on your own is an important choice — and one that should depend on some very basic factors.

What are your financial resources for this? Do you have insurance coverage? Are you emotionally able to proceed? Is this a big or a small event? How much is wet or otherwise damaged? Finally, what other resources — supplies, volunteers, a dry and secure space — are available to you?

The money you’d spend to bring in a conservator for a day, to help establish salvage and treatment protocols, may save you money in the long run. A conservator can quickly assess the type of damage, but can also tell you what you can expect from post-disaster treatments. Some conservation methods are very successful at returning items almost to their pre-event condition, while certain types of damage will not have good results.

A damage assessment, done with your insurance agent, will help you determine what artworks, supplies, and administrative resources need replacement or might be salvageable. Once you have this discussion and have created a list, you can determine your recovery budget, based on likely insurance reimbursement and your personal finances.

This is where your list of salvage priorities comes in. There may be works that are more important to you, or you might need more of your archives and art supplies to get restarted in your creative work. Only you can determine what to spend your budget on, based on your attachment to your work and your other resources.

If you do decide to do a lot of the work yourself, make sure that you have plenty of freezer space, so that you can air-dry materials in batches. But do not try to freeze porous-type materials, such as bone and ivory, or complex items such as paintings.

Review the basic post-disaster process

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Some types of artworks are more difficult to handle when damaged, sooty, or wet. Paintings on wood panels, plaster, and stretched canvas are all going to require the expertise of a conservator who can help with drying time, fragile surfaces, and an understanding of the physical forces taking place as these complex items dry.

Porous types of materials and surfaces will be salvaged most effectively if a professional sets a protocol for the process. Since many conservators work on large batches of artifacts at one time, they may be able to help with sequencing the work. Without help in creating the most effective process, you may eventually get there — but you will have lost a lot of time, and perhaps some artwork in the interim.

All this is more an art than a science. Patience will take you far! Remember to be semper gumby (Always Flexible). Take frequent breaks and pace yourself. Drink plenty of water and avoid lots of coffee and caffeinated drinks. Eat good food.

If you are going to be carrying out the salvage yourself, make sure you are physically and emotionally able to do so. Make sure that you have a clear path to enter the damaged area, and a clear path to your salvage area. When you go in to salvage an item or group of items, know ahead of time where you will be setting them down. 

Remember that water weighs 8 lbs./gallon! So books, papers, textiles, wood, in fact anything porous, is going to be about 10 times heavier than it was before it got wet.

If items are sooty, remember to wear your protective gear, and don’t handle the items until you have gently vacuumed off the soot. Handle anything sooty as little as possible, because soot is easily ground into porous surfaces. With this type of damage, it’s an especially good idea to involve a conservator for help with protocols on the front end — especially for paintings and metal surfaces. Soot can be very corrosive, and quick removal will prevent permanent damage.

The same is true with really muddy stuff. (These items will also be extra heavy!) Rinse gently if you can, and you have the time. Otherwise, just handle as little as possible and either air-dry or freeze. When it’s dry, the dirt will be easier to remove with a soft brush and not as apt to be ground into the porous surface.

A salvage vendor can perform a wide range of services for you, but may not be well-versed on what is best for your artwork. Certain salvage methods, such as ozone treatments for odors, can adversely affect cellulosic materials and should be avoided. It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want a salvage vendor to do — and not do.

If you’re going to carry out a course of salvage by yourself; preplanning is the key. It’ll also help a lot to have supplies on hand, along with a list of colleagues who can help; understand how to use your supplies; meet with your insurance agent on this specific topic, and consider calling a salvage vendor to get an idea of the extent of their services.

The American Institute for Conservation has a service that will help you find an art conservator in your area who can help you address some of the more intricate details of your salvage. On their home page are two key resources: Find a Conservator, and an article on Selecting a Conservator. The latter goes into detail about the types of services conservators can and cannot do, along with questions that you should ask them before contracting for their services.

Heritage Preservation has several web articles and links to help the public with the salvage of their collections.
The Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. has a 24/7 hotline to help with emergencies. Visit or 978-470-1010.