Allan Britnell
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Restoring damaged artwork

Restoration work can get you into all kinds of interesting situations. Scott M. Haskins, of Fine Art Conservation Laboratories in Santa Barbara, Calif., once got involved with a breakup so nasty, it led to multiple stabbing victims. “One day, while the young woman was at work, [her ex-boyfriend] went to her house and stabbed her ancestors—portraits. He absolutely mutilated them.” His team of art restoration experts were able to resurrect his client’s loved ones by painstakingly reattaching the individual fibres of the canvasses with a heat-sensitive adhesive.

Luckily, art attacks are rare. More common is damage from fire, or more specifically, the soot and smoke resulting from a fire. Most artworks are finished with a layer of varnish that can, if necessary, be removed along with soot, dirt, or other contaminants. “It’s what I call ‘the sacrificial layer,’” says Haskins. But the backs of canvases and picture frames are rarely finished, and smoke odours can soak into the porous materials. He recalls one client who’d burnt a bagel in his toaster so badly that his entire house had to be cleaned, including 25 paintings, to remove the stink. The works of art were placed in an ozone chamber to neutralize as much of the odour as possible before the backsides of each frame and canvas were coated with a conservation-grade varnish to seal in the smell.

Sometimes the solution requires a rocket scientist, or at least one of their colleagues. Scientists working at NASA’s Glenn Research Center discovered that atomic oxygen—oxygen atoms that have been divided in half by ultraviolet light in the Earth’s upper atmosphere—can be used to remove unwanted blemishes from priceless works of art. So they developed a machine to create atomic oxygen on Earth. One of the first opportunities to use the technique came from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. In 1997, the museum hosted a party held by a lipstick company. One of the guests decided to kiss an Andy Warhol painting, Bathtub. Unfortunately, Warhol hadn’t varnished the canvas. The NASA team brought a portable machine to blast the lipstick off. It did such a good job of cleaning that a museum curator had to paint over the spot lightly so that it would blend in with the dirty film that coated the rest of the image.

Sometimes the treasures for repair aren’t always monetarily valuable. Marshall Oliver, director of technical services for Belfor Property Restoration Canada, was once asked to repair a photo album that had been drenched then wrapped in plastic and tossed into the bottom of a freezer for a decade or more. When the owner passed away, her descendants found the album and asked Belfor for help.The process for restoring saturated paperwork often calls for thermal vacuum freeze-drying, where the water molecules are changed at temperatures of about -50ºC from a frozen state to vapour without ever liquefying. But one of the challenges is to not remove too much moisture, which would leave the paper brittle.His company used the same process to restore some totem poles that stood on the grounds of the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. He once even flew to Hyderabad, India with a portable vacuum freeze-dryer to restore more than 100,000 manuscripts dating back to the 18th century when a library was flooded. His team was in the process of training locals to undertake the multi-year job when the Canadian embassy kindly asked them to depart the country because there was a chance India and Pakistan might lob nuclear weapons at each other.

But the spectre of nuclear death aside, there’s still the more pedestrian kind… and it still may need a biohazard crew to physically clean it up. Typically, when someone dies at home or the office, paramedics take the victim with them. But the aftermath of a messy murder or suicide, or when a loner whose death at home goes unnoticed for a long time, can leave a lot of undesirables behind, even after the coroner has carted the body away. “Once the ‘source’ has been removed, our team comes in with full biohazard suits,” says John Tagle, senior VP of business development for Puroclean Canada. “It’s a very similar process to a fire or water loss. Obviously, the disinfectants are different.” Note to self: “Smoke-Off” odour eater will not remove dead body smell.

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Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the May 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine