Top 10 Tips for Preserving Your Artworks

The tips below are techniques for long-term protection of your art and artifacts. If followed, these approaches can minimize deterioration and protect the value of your treasures. They come from an area of conservation called “preventive conservation”. Like preventive medicine, they are small changes that have lasting beneficial effects. As the tips below show, the changes often involve altering the display and storage environment and creating safe handling and housing practices. Nowhere will you find tips on how to perform treatments, as these should only ever be performed by a professional conservator, such as myself. Call 310.386.9291 or email me for a free consultation on treatments.

  1. Do not store your artworks in the attic or the basement.
    The temperature and relative humidity fluctuate wildly in these areas of a house, which is very damaging to art, especially to paper, wood, metal, leather, painting and other organic materials. Leaks and floods are also very common in these areas. It is better to store your art in a cleaned-out closet or an unused bedroom.
  2. Keep it out of the sun.
    Do not display paintings, prints or organic objects, such as wood sculptures, in direct sunlight.  Sunlight can cause localized temperature increases and contains a lot of ultraviolet (UV) light, which causes fading and discoloration. Keep an eye on the areas where sunlight is hitting your displayed artworks and either move the artworks or put blinds on the windows. Another alternative is to put light and UV filters on the windows, but this can be more expensive than blinds.
  3. Avoid spotlights and spot bulbs on displayed artworks.
    Similar to sunlight, spotlights can caused localized temperature increases and localized fading. Use diffused or flood lights and bulbs instead.
  4. Keep your artworks dust-free.
    Besides preventing dirt from accumulating on the surface, dust attracts water from the water vapor in the air, which is damaging. Either dust the pieces regularly or cover them when in storage.
  5. Handle your art objects with gloves.
    Oils on the fingertips can stain, in particular, metal and paper. Use thin neoprene, latex or cotton gloves; do not use thick gloves or ones with a talcum powder coating.
  6. Create a storage area that is free of pests.
    Believe it or not, pests love eating materials in artworks. Silverfish gobble up paper, beetles chew up wood, moths eat textiles and rodents consume just about anything, just to name a few. Make sure to seal the storage area well, do periodic inspections of the artworks and storage areas looking for droppings and insect debris, such as frass, and keep food, drink and plants away from artwork.
  7. Monitor the relative humidity (RH) in your art display and storage areas.
    High humidity can cause mold growth and low humidity can cause cracking, but it is actually the fluctuations from high to low that can cause the most damage. Fluctuations put a lot of stress on the fabric of the object through repeated cycles of desiccation (the materials of the object lose water and shrink) and saturation (the materials gain water and expand). Most art objects enjoy a stable relative humidity between 40-60% (except for many metal objects, which prefer a lower relative humidity). Humidity monitors can include color-changing strips, digital hygrometers and dataloggers, which record RH at scheduled intervals and are graphed digitally. I have a good amount of experience with humidity monitors, so please contact me for more information.
  8. Securely handle and store artworks.
    This sounds like a no-brainer, but mechanical damage of artworks from handling, transporting and poor storage is one of, if not the, most common causes of deterioration and loss of value. Always hold objects with two hands; Always get plenty of people to help if the objects are heavy; Always create a clear path when transporting objects; Always secure the objects if you live in a seismic area; Do not stack objects on top of each other; Do not cram objects together.
  9. Periodically document your art.
    This is important for many reasons. If you have an insurance policy on your art, it must be documented photographically. In the case of a cataclysmic event on your house, you may be able to recover the value of the objects if they are documented. Also, if you suspect there is active deterioration of the artwork, take a high-resolution photograph of the questionable area once a month and compare the images.
  10. Use archival materials for housing and framing.
    Get your artwork professionally framed, so that proper materials are used. Storage shelves should be metal; matte boards and tissue paper used for storage must be acid free; foam blocks should be made of polyethylene; cloth draped over objects should be made of natural cotton. Wood shelves, non-acid free papers, Styrofoam and non-cotton or dyed cloths, such as wool, can off-gas chemical pollutants that can react with the materials of the objects to cause irreversible damage.