Caring For Your Art Collection

Art Preservation Is Playing the Long Game

By Peter Letzelter-Smith

One aspect of building a fine art or valuables collection that should not be overlooked is preservation. As recognized in the professional art world, preservation entails the technical requirements and ethical commitment to ensure that works of art are maintained for the future. Your art collection, ultimately, is not your own. It should be cared for and passed into the future.

Asger Dybvad Larsen (left) and Ethan Cook
Artworks by Asger Dybvad Larsen (left) and Ethan Cook. Courtesy by Bech Risvig Collection.

The wide range of objects that art can be — paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, books, fine furniture, musical instruments, and fiber arts to name only a few categories — all entail their own challenges and techniques. But all of these items, like everything in the physical realm, are subject to entropy. Matter will decay to its simplest components at as fast a rate as possible. Ultimately, caring for your art collection is doing the things necessary to slow the rate of entropy as much as possible.

And in the broadest terms, the environment in which your art collection spends its time — where it “lives” — is the primary factor in this process of decay. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, changes in temperature and atmospheric humidity, friction, pests (insects or animals like mice), and atmospheric pollutants are all subtle and full-time forces that have to be accounted for. In addition, sudden and unusual forces have to be planned for — or better yet, planned against. Fire, water, theft, and physical damage due to accidental contact are all enemies as well. Of course, these challenges have been a focus of human civilization for millennia, so there is a wealth of information available. And cutting-edge preservation research continues. Organizations like the London-based Institute of Conservation and Washington’s Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute are repositories for the science and techniques of art preservation.

Artworks by Ismar Cirkinagic and Wolfgang Voegele. Courtesy of Bech Risvig Collection
Artworks by Ismar Cirkinagic (left) and Wolfgang Voegele. Courtesy of Bech Risvig Collection.

Box frames are particularly good choices for protecting works of art. These kinds of frames are “deeper” than the work of art itself — the frame will extend out from the wall it’s hung on farther than the work itself — thereby creating a protective wall around what is framed. These kinds of frames are not only good choices for paintings and prints, but fiber arts and virtually any other objets d’art can be successfully hung in a box frame.

Once properly framed, ensuring that works are hung from mounts that are driven into studs is vitally important. A nail driven into plaster or drywall will not pass the test of time. Make sure that nails or screws are set into the weight-bearing wood or metal that supports the wall. Another part of the framing can be glazing, which will protect works from one of the main threats to art: long-term exposure to UV radiation. Glass or acrylic glazing can provide UV filtering ranging from 50 percent to 99.9 percent (museum grade). For paintings and other susceptible works of art that will not have glazing as part of their framing, it is important that they not be hung in a room where they will receive direct sunlight. A windowless room is the best choice. Next best is a room whose windows include some kind of UV filtering.

Artwork by Jenny Brosinski
Artwork by Jenny Brosinski. Courtesy of Bech Risvig Collection.

The other factor to consider when choosing where to display your collection is controlling both the atmospheric humidity and temperature variation of the environment. Do not hang pieces near heat sources like radiators or vents. Repetitive changes in humidity and temperature will cause most works of art to have changes in moisture content, to expand and contract repeatedly, and to collect the dirt that rises on hot air. These dynamics will degrade pieces over time. Controlling the access that insects and animals have to the area is also important. Mice will nibble on almost anything they can get to, including paintings, paper, and fiber arts. Likewise moths and other bugs.

In the case of sculptures or other objects made of non-biodegradable materials, the already listed issues are less severe. The most common threat to these objects is breakage. Any work that is placed on a raised surface — a mounting base of any kind — should be attached to that base and then the base attached to the floor. This will prevent the piece from falling to the floor in case of accidental contact.

These are only a few of the issues concerning art preservation. There are a myriad of other types of art that have their own specialized issues — musical instruments, antique armaments, textiles, and many more — that can be researched by a collector or handled by a conservator. The most important takeaway is that when building an art collection one needs to also build a safe, sustainable home for the collection too.


Get your free copy of Artland Magazine

More than 60 pages interviews with insightful collectors.