An American in Florence: restoring the moral balance

Professor James Beck, Professor of Art History at Columbia University, prosecuted for the fourth time for criminal libel in an Italian Court, has been acquitted.

Restorer Gianni Caponi brought the four actions over remarks Beck made in a number of Italian newspapers about the restoration of the marble tomb of Ilaria del Corretto by 15th C. sculptor Jacopo della Quercia in Lucca Cathedral. Beck apparently said that the statue looked as if it had been treated with acid, ‘cleaned with Spic & Span and polished with Johnson’s Wax’. But the Italian judge decided after preliminary hearings that there were insufficient grounds for a prosecution of criminal libel. Caponi’s action has produced yet another of the occasional public debates about conservation and restoration. In this instance, as with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, the debate has been sustained and full of passionate intensity. And, with this latest court case, it will undoubtedly rage on in Italy as well as in the arts, antiquities and academic worlds.

What are the issues and how are they relevant to contemporary makers as well as conservators and curators? There are those, such as Beck, arguing that restoration and conservation are driven by market forces to the detriment of the art works they are meant to protect. The demands of the art market-place and of the media for the novel, together with the availability of lucrative sponsorship deals for restoration protects, lead to unnecessary cleaning and restorations. In addition, the argument goes, such demands have led to the creation of an unregulated industry of restoration and conservation, simply interested in justifying its techniques and the need for restoration, and ignoring any arguments to the contrary.

While few deny that there are problems with restoration and conservation techniques, there are those who see restoration as a legitimate and worthy activity to preserve and enhance the condition of artworks for the benefit of today’s and future generations of viewers. To combat what Beck views as the ill-effects of the restoration and conservation industry, he has proposed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for art works. Essentially this would establish a scheme similar to the listing of buildings. Art works would be listed in different grades. Any movement, conservation, restoration or cleaning of works which the individual or institution owning them wanted to carry out would then have to be judged appropriate by a statutory body according to the criteria laid down in the Bill. These criteria recommend a minimalist approach to treatment of works, restrictions on the transport of listed works and on the use of experimental techniques.

Perhaps this type of legislation, necessarily reinforced by international treaties, is the complete answer. But whatever the arguments about the rights and wrongs of restoration, this technique over that technique, the courts are hardly the best forum to resolve these issues, though with money, livelihoods and passions involved, legal wrangles are inevitable. If Beck’s opinions, right or wrong, became popular, they could do severe damage to the livelihoods of conservators like Caponi. If Caponi’s prosecutions had been successful, one of the few checks on unwarranted or ill-considered restoration – critical analysis of the finished result – might have been lost forever. There must be regulation, legislative or otherwise, of conservation and restoration; not only to avoid litigation but also to protect art works and artists’ intentions and reputations.

Take as an example, the chocolate bust by Dieter Roth, now riddled with worms, which was sent earlier this year to Heinz Althofer at the Dusseldorf Restoration Centre. Whereas Althofer would inject a worm-infested wood sculpture with pesticide, he has done nothing to Roth’s work because the chemical is toxic and the bust was intended to be edible. If a restorer were to intervene, it would be a clear case of derogatory treatment, an abuse of the artist’s statutory moral rights. After all, if the bust were no longer edible it would cease to be the art work originally intended by the artist. This is a fairly clear case, but if an artist wished a work, made, for example, in iron to slowly rust and fade away and that this rusting process, even though ultimately consigning the work to a pile of rust, was part of the artist’s intention, then statements to that effect by artists would enable them or their heirs to take legal action using their statutory moral rights to prevent any unwarranted ‘restoration’. It would also help conservators and curators to treat such works with due respect based upon certain knowledge and understanding of makers’ intentions.

Professional conservators and curators always consider the advisability of conservation or restoration in relation to the original intentions of the artist insofar as they are known. (Statutory moral rights for artists reinforce the need for such considerations during the artists life time plus 50 years after death.) A perfect illustration of this is the recent problem that arose with the late Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall in Helsinki The original Carrara marble has become soft and is bending away from the wall – it is presently held to the wall with plastic netting. Carrara could not be used again – it is expensive and the City of Helsinki would be faced with the same bill in another 15-20 years. However a decision to clad the building in a dark granite was successfully challenged by his widow, since she was able to show that Aalto had used the marble fundamentally because of its whiteness. The agreed solution is that a Lapland marble is to be used, since it combines hardiness with the whiteness which Aalto was looking for. Another simple tale of common-sense; there were no legal rights involved. The maker’s original intentions were clear and could be respected.

What is the way forward? One route Outlined by David Leigh, head of the Conservation Unit, Museums and Galleries Commission, is that of self-regulation. This has already been undertaken by some Italian, French and British conservators to form a European Confederation of Conservators-Restorers’ Organisations, which aims to set agreed standards of practice and training throughout Europe and to obtain legal recognition of the profession of conservation. The other route is that outlined by Beck in his Bill of Rights for art works.

Both, or a combination of elements of each of these routes must be in the public interest, since the lack of regulation has led to alleged abuses and a lack of confidence in too many restorations. Contemporary makers can help themselves today by fully documenting their work and their intentions – particularly specifying materials and techniques used. This would help future conservators and curators do their jobs more effectively. It would also allow artists and their heirs to assert their statutory moral rights more effectively.

© Henry Lydiate and James Odling-Smee 1991

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.