So you are at the museum: has that painting been preserved, restored or maybe even replicated?

This Kat had the luxury of doing a first degree in Medieval History before he set out to find a
field that might gainfully employ him. As a result of his studies, he developed a fascination with someday visiting the Cité de Carcassonne in southwestern France. Crumbling and set for demolition, the medieval citadel there was restored in the 1850’s under the direction of the renowned architect and intellectual, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, and it reportedly is the second most visited tourist site in all of France, eclipsed only by the Eiffel Tower. Fifteen years ago, this Kat realized his aspiration, and he spent the better part of a glorious day walking the length and breadth of the site. But the more he heard and learned that day about the restoration, the more he came away wondering—how much of the cité was conservation; how much was restoration; and how much what was what Violett-le-Duc decided should be added? How much was from the late medieval ages, and how much was a 19th century version of an amusement park?

This Kat recently recalled these questions in reading a piece by Ben Lerner in The New Yorker magazine, “The Custodians: How the Whitney Museum is transforming the art of museum conservation”. The article describes how the Whitney Museum of American Art, located in New York City has established a so-called replication committee (including one lawyer as a member) to determine under what conditions a work must be replicated if it cannot be fixed or otherwise restored in any traditional manner. The acute question that arises is whether it is still possible to talk about the original object when it has passed from conservation or even restoration to (mere?) replication.

As Lerner writes, the two poles of the debate were already framed in the 19th century. On one end was John Ruskin, who argued against any form of restoration, even if the result was that the building or object might wholly decay. In his words-- the “greatest glory of a building ….is in its Age.”

At the other end was the same Viollet-le-Duc, who argued and was engaged in multiple restorations. Reconstruction of a building was not only permitted, but called for, to--
“…reestablish it in a finished state, which may have in fact never have actually existed at a given time.”
A vigorous modern proponent of Ruskin’s view was Andrew Petryn, the former chief conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery, who was committed to what is called “de-restoration”, as he sought to remove all the restoration done to a work, leaving the work as created by the artist itself. Much controversy ensued, and Petryn was euphemistically criticized for “aggressive over-cleaning” of some pieces of the collection. At the other end was Viollet-le-Duc and his work at such sites as Carcassonne. In Lerner’s view, Ruskin’s position risks “fetishizing damage”, while Viollet-de-Luc risks “the Disneyfication of the historical record.” As Lerner suggests elsewhere in the piece, do we prefer the work “as an archaeological artifact” or should it be something that allows us to experience it as a picture qua picture? It seems to this Kat that the treatment of a building, which has an inherent functional purpose—namely shelter, can be distinguished from a painting, for which the artistic experience is the sine qua non. Still, the foregoing discussion on the two polar positions maintained by Ruskin and Viollet-de-Luc, respectively, usefully sets out the parameters of the discussion.

A fascinating example of how this might play out was described by Lerner in connection with a painting at the Whitney by the noted Abstract Expressionist painter, Mark Rothko. The head of the conservation department said that staff had noted “some unexplained, inconsistent coloration” in the painting. A painting conservator went about examining the painting with an infra-red camera, looking for either evidence of damage or if there had prior “intervention” of the painting. If the latter, “[i]t might be that Rothko himself restored this, and did a poor job.” If this were the case, would it be proper for the Whitney to effectively save the artist from himself? But it is also possible that the inconsistent coloration was done intentionally by the artist. If so, change would not “improve” the artwork but rather could do harm to the artist’s aesthetic intentions. Rothko died in 1970, so the ability of the Whitney to resolve the issue would seem especially daunting (it appears that no decision has yet been reached).

More fundamentally, to what extent does the Whitney need to first take a position on the
Ruskin/Viollet-de-Luc debate (as it has been refined over the last century) before it can then act on deciding what steps to take? At the least, Kat readers might keep these questions in mind the next time that they visit their favorite art gallery or museum—what exactly is the nature of the artwork being viewed. Is it more about then, or now?
So you are at the museum: has that painting been preserved, restored or maybe even replicated? So you are at the museum: has that painting been preserved, restored or maybe even replicated? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, January 29, 2016 Rating: 5


  1. As a fellow lover of Carcassonne, I agree with the sentiment expressed in Wikipedia:

    "Viollet-le-Duc's achievement at Carcassonne is agreed to be a work of genius, though not of the strictest authenticity."

    It is sad that it is not authentic, but without VlC's TLC, there might not be a Carcassonne at all, and THAT would be a tragedy.

  2. Great post. There's of course a balance to be struck, but I think there's been far too much 'fetishizing damage', condemning works (particularly sculptures and buildings) to a life as broken faded husks of their former glory, rather than providing any true reflection of the artistic merit that imbued the originals at their time of creation, or as subsequently imagined.

    Perhaps with replication (or virtual reality) we can have our cake and eat it too.

  3. Depends what you want to do, or claim.

    Restoration inevitably means replacement, especially if you want to continue using something - e.g. a building, a vehicle, an ancient musical instrument. Essentially it's long-term maintenance, in which replacement/rebuilding is inevitable and necessary. It obviously applies to touched-up old-masters as well as castles, steam engines, and famous original stone-age axes which have had 4 new heads and three new handles (as a story which I can't find at the moment goes).

    Many who are involved in this take the pragmatic view that restoration should be visible and, if possible reversible, so that removed/replaced parts are obvious, and often stored in the vicinity. Of course, putting them back turns the process into preservation, often to a pretty but useless aspic state.

    Restoration of large musical instruments such as church or concert hall organs often involves trying to decide exactly which state they should be restored to, taking into account that something might have been changed because it didn't work, in which case a return to the original condition would be a waste of time. While this may appear to be of marginal interest - who would want to "restore" something to a state in which it's no longer fit for its stated purpose? - it has to be borne in mind that these things are often funded by various heritage funds, in particular the Lottery Heritage Fund in the UK, which has stringent, and not always useful, helpful, or appropriate for the task in hand.

    However, the big problem, which has flawed and floored a number of people, is the Ship of Theseus problem - restoring a "vintage" vehicle, for example, and selling it on as such, which perhaps puts it in a lower tax/insurance bracket, but which is later judged to have so many new parts that it is objectively a new car. Hefty legal expenses and fines from your local friendly Tax Office usually follow.

    No idea what this has to do with IP, but it's interesting none the less :-)

  4. Cardiff Castle was extensively restored in the 19th century. The original extent of the exterior walls prior to restoration is delineated by a thin line of differently-coloured stone. Prior to restoration, most of the walls were only a few feet above ground level.

  5. I had the benefit of a private guided tour of our city's art museum as part of a bar association meeting.

    At one point, the curator explained in great detail how a set of very valuable Renaissance paintings had been carefully restored to their original glory, with before and after pictures.

    While this does now afford me the ability to see what these glorious paintings may have been like so long ago, the thought expressed in this article about reversibility does not seem pertinent to restoration of paintings.

    Further, while I understand that every attempt at authenticity is made, the curator did share what I thought was a startling admission: in several, not-necessarily-minor, areas of the restored works, the team of restorers had to "make a best guess."

    To me this raises the question as to whether restoration as a form of making the art "living" - that is, not subject to death and decay and eventual return to dust, is "really" still a work solely by the original artist.

    I would think - for both the IP and an historical accuracy standpoint - that the artists rendering such "restorations" should be noted.

  6. To comment on the last comment, if I may:

    "To me this raises the question as to whether restoration as a form of making the art "living" - that is, not subject to death and decay and eventual return to dust, is "really" still a work solely by the original artist."

    Most Old Master paintings are not and never were works solely by the original artist. Artists maintained studios (workshops) replete with assistants, students, and apprentices who specialized in certain elements like foliage or horses. Artists were craftsmen and part of the guild system. Rembrandt famously maintained a large studio, as did Rubens, whose day jobs included that of ambassador.

    "The master might paint only the central figures or simply the faces in a work—or he might not paint any of it at all. Students were trained to work in the master’s style and succeeded to such a degree that it is sometimes hard for today’s art historians to distinguish the hand of a master from that of his most talented pupils. Attributions of some paintings from the studio of Verrocchio, for example, have gone back and forth between the master and various assistants. The same confusion applies to works of Perugino (one of Verrocchio’s students) and his young assistant Raphael, and those of Giovanni Bellini’s students Giorgione and Titian. Although contracts sometimes specified that the master himself execute certain parts of a composition, guild rules allowed him to sign as his own any work that emerged from his shop. “Authenticity” in the modern sense was not at issue. A master’s signature was a sign that a work met his standards of quality, no matter who had actually painted it."

    "Paintings from Rubens' workshop can be divided into three categories: those he painted by himself, those he painted in part (mainly hands and faces), and those he only supervised as other painters produced them from his drawings or oil sketches. He had, as was usual at the time, a large workshop with many apprentices and students, some of whom, such as Anthony van Dyck, became famous in their own right. He also often sub-contracted elements such as animals or still-life in large compositions to specialists such as Frans Snyders, or other artists such as Jacob Jordaens."

    The value attached to "solely by one artist" or "solely the artist's own hand" is a much later, Romantic one. Inevitably, things reversed once again and we have Warhol's studio and Koons's factory system.

    "It's a phenomenon that's rarely discussed in the art world: The new work on a gallery wall wasn't necessarily painted by the artist who signed it. Some well-known artists, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, openly employ small armies of assistants to do their paintings and sculptures. Others hire help more quietly."

    Does any of this have anything to do with IP (copyright)? I think it's an absolute mine of excitingly relevant and irrelevant enquiry and argument.

    Amalyah Keshet
    Head of Image Resorces & Copyright Management
    The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

  7. The Same Previous AnonymousSunday 31 January 2016 at 15:26:00 GMT


    Thank you for that exquisite contribution.

    In today's day and age, the authorship (in copyright) and inventorship (in patents) very much are at the foundation of rights because there MUST be a clear line of succession in any court proceeding that would establish the necessary standing requirement to be in court and to enforce those selfsame intellectual property rights.

    This would be less about the "value" of the name, and more about dollar value of the legal action.

    In today's parlance then, the old masters' "name" would be more akin to some type of "Masters' Named Corporation" and the rather obvious parallels between today's corporations and their desire for more guild-like control over all intellectual property laws is rather unmistakable.

    To such an end, then, this topic of "name" is most definitely NOT irrelevant.

  8. I suggest there is an issue of copyright.

    If an old work is unrestored and well past attracting copyright protection it is free for anyone to reproduce.

    If a work is restored by someone who has had to make a "best guess" then a new work, and new copyright has probably arisen.

    So restoration is in the interest of the museum that wants to survive by controlling reproduction of its collection: but contrary to its duty to preserve and not damage historical objects.

    Conservation is not the same as restoration and they are at far ends of a spectrum. Museums tend to be conservative, whereas the art world tends to be restorative. It all depends on whether you value authenticity or aesthetics more.

  9. The Same Previous AnonymousSunday 31 January 2016 at 17:07:00 GMT

    Thanks Meldrew,

    But I cannot distinguish what you label as opposite ends of the spectrum. My own (limited) experience indicates that the museums themselves see restoration and conservation as (quite) overlapping - the opposite of your opposite.

    Further, the problem I identified at the onset - the lack of acknowledgement - means that there is no way for the public to know the difference - and even if a difference exists (for the subset of "we had to guess"), would not there be a Fair Use excuse inherent in the fact that the master itself is still being stated to be that master? This is a problem with the living/dead dichotomy I raised at the onset. If indeed as you seem to imply a "new"; work is present (even if merely a derivative), and a new copyright inures, that upon what right does the holder of the new right have to stop anybody else from doing what they themselves just did? Clearly, they themselves lacked copyright ownership in the original, and they were free to "copy" (even if, such "copying" was directly atop that same original). "We can but you cannot" loses any sense of equity in enforcement of the new right.

  10. An old master would never be restored and then advertised "version by R. Estorer". Hence there is no new work. Anyway, much of the problem is today moot, because it is easy to experiment digitally. It is also becoming preferred to make the work available digitally in order to protect the original from the wear and tear, and not the least exposure to light. Moving original artwork to exhibitions (loans) is excruciatingly expensive in insurance as well as in climate-controlled cases, and the condition before and after is monitored square centimeter by square centimeter in order to determine if anything undesired has happened.

    The whole field is of prime interest to restorers-conservators and has developed philosophically far beyond Viollet-le-Duc but still reaching back to e.g. Alois Riegl in the first decade of the 20th century. One recommended, actually indispensable, book is by Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, 'Contemporary Theory of Conservation', Routledge 2004.

    George Brock-Nannestad

  11. The Same Previous Anonymous

    I think you misunderstood my point. An "old master" long out of copyright and missing significant parts comes into the restorer's studio. An artist (for so some restorer's are) "repairs" the missing parts by guesswork as to what was intended.

    Are you saying that there is no copyright in the "repaired" parts?

    You seem to imply that no copyright exists without public knowledge of the author, and that "fair use" applies if the identity is withheld from the public. Do you have a case on that point? What constitutes fair use varies so much by jurisdiction I have compltely lost any limited knowledge I once had.

    As for equity - who said copyright with its grotesque term had anything to do with equity?

  12. Some "restorations"
    (Ecce Homo)... are more interesting (and valuable) than the original.

    What is art?

  13. The Same Previous AnonymousMonday 1 February 2016 at 13:31:00 GMT


    I do not misunderstand your point, but you put too fine a distinction on it in your reply.

    My experience with my city's art museum was not one of a "oh, it is obvious that the restorer had to guess and filled in a blank spot."

    Much more subtle than that. Hues, saturations, gradients, such minor but no less important aspects of both technical and creative choices must be made because the ravages of time have had their way, and no one today really knows what the choices of the original artist (or team under "Corporation Artist") had been.

    The "missing significant parts" was simply not a part of the experience that I had.

    But returning directly to the issue of "new" copyright...

    Your own question mirrors the problem: "Are you saying that there is no copyright in the "repaired" parts?"

    According to the present day custom, there can be NO new copyright, because there is NO new "author" of that copyright. Any new "authorship" is denied because those doing the "authorship" are simply not credited. I think that you have read too much into the "not knowing because not made public" comment and perhaps I was not clear enough while making that comment. Either way, the museum cannot have it both ways - it cannot have a "new" copyright while maintaining that the work it displays is an original "by the master."

    I also wish to make a distinction with George Brock-Nanestad's view of "mootness." Clearly, Mr. Brock-Nanestad has some learning here (more sholarly learning than do I); and while digitally capturing works is a fantastic modern advance; such digital "flatness" is simply not comparable to the actual physical work. Oil painting (as an example among many works) does have a three dimensional aspect. In fact, a beloved, but long departed brother of mine was an artist and his technique purposefully incorporated that three dimensional aspect with layering of paint.

    So while there is indeed "danger" and "risk" with seeing originals (transported and shown in different locations), those same originals are in fact different than - in important and not moot artistic aspects - any digital capture.

  14. As to the issue of copyright, if I may:

    "If a work is restored by someone who has had to make a "best guess" then a new work, and new copyright has probably arisen.

    So restoration is in the interest of the museum that wants to survive by controlling reproduction of its collection: but contrary to its duty to preserve and not damage historical objects. "

    The only possible claim to copyright would be in the new, added elements, which probably wouldn't pass the originality test anyway. And no, it's absurd to think that a museum or restorer would try to claim that "new" copyright. Just isn't relevant. And no, this is not one of the imaginary methods that museums supposedly try in order to "survive by controlling reproduction of its collection." Speaking from 38 years as a museum professional: No. Just isn't so.

    And while we're at it, restoration and conservation are, professionally, one and the same discipline.

    Amalyah Keshet


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