Virtually every professional sector has some form of conservationist. It’s usually an individual with a heightened passion for the topic, an acute intuition for the ideal and of course, encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. In the esoteric world of fine art, a seasoned curator or art historian can provide important pre-purchase counsel, but a conservator is the one who’s called when a precious masterpiece is in need of care. Or worse, when there’s reason to believe a Monet is a fake.
Art conservators are at the forefront of an evolving field that combines cutting edge technology with old-world sensibilities. They’re unique professionals equally at home in the annals of the museum and at a forensics lab. And their credentials must be impeccable at the polar extremes of the academic spectrum—art and science. Perhaps this is why Alexander Katlan is one of fewer than 1,000 art conservators in the United States.
A former chemistry major, Katlan has painstakingly analyzed thousands of paintings for damage, deterioration and authenticity. “After we make our analysis, curators and art historians will be consulted with any new evidence, as will the owner, before a determination will be made. Decisions tend to be collaborative,” he said. An initial consultation lasts about 45 minutes while a full-length analysis can take months. “We take a long-term approach. We’ve been treating some collections for 30 years.”
Katlan works in relative obscurity bordering on secrecy at his lab in a nondescript office in Queens. He declined to name individual cases, citing confidentiality arrangements, but he offered a generous peek into his world for this interview, as he did last fall when he presented his lecture, “Be an Art Detective,” at the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills.
Before the sleuthing begins, Katlan invests a considerable amount of time in researching the historical aspects of a piece. “You cannot bring a painting into the present without understanding its past,” he confided. “The secret is in understanding the process.” His first step is typically to ascertain which style or school influenced a piece to help identify the materials used. Wearing a surgical mask and gloves, he’ll remove a specimen from a fringe area for analysis—a fraction of a millimeter is all it takes. He draws his tools from something of a cross between a jeweler’s bench and a surgical tray holding various stainless steel scissors, razors, tweezers, loupes and other implements.
Another key step is to examine the painting’s “layers” under indirect light. This is critical to deciding how to begin the conservation process, which seeks to find flaws like pigment inconsistencies, bumps, indentations, tears, flakes, holes and cracks that time, environment and temperature fluctuations can cause. The type of damage also tells part of the painting’s story: excessive heat can shrink a canvas and mold attacks oils, glue and the panel. Evidence of either of these contributes to knowing where the piece may have lived for a time. “This is particularly acute on Long Island,” noted Katlan, who took part in “extensive artistic triage” at the Museum of Modern Art after Hurricane Sandy.
A paint sample is also taken to see which cleaning solvents can be used without adverse chemical reactions. Numerous notes and photographs documenting the painting’s pre-treatment condition are recorded. “Many things can go wrong with a painting. If we can prevent damage, that may be all the intervention a painting may need. Other times, stabilizing or retarding the deterioration rate is the most one can do. There’s no one way to treat a painting.”
Kaplan’s hi-tech methods include infrared reflectography, which works like an X-ray for paintings. It allows him to look through paint layers, revealing elements not visible to the unaided eye, like sketches buried lower down. Identifying pigments is critical for dating the work as well as for uncovering fakes or forgeries and for finding safe conservation treatments and environmental conditions for display, storage and transportation.
Katlan doesn’t appraise a work, but his findings can become part of a formal valuation. People often call when there is a problem or question with a painting. But, because it can be nearly impossible to put a value on the object of a collector’s affection—no matter how highly a painting may be appraised—he steers clear of those abstractions. “Lab people do not make the conclusions,” said Katlan, who has been examining paintings for more than 40 years. “We can provide the evidence which others may use to interpret.” Emotions or sentimentalism can drive an individual to purchase a significant painting, but after the initial thrill subsides clients turn to Katlan to assuage doubts and make other concrete determinations.
“There is always much more to learn about a piece of art by looking at its past than the actual image on the canvas,” said Katlan. This is where his investigations tend to start. For many private collectors, investment appreciation is secondary to the joy or prestige of owning a masterwork. Katlan, who specializes in paintings from the Hudson River School and has worked on art from Rembrandt to Willem de Kooning, acknowledged that what a person collects is an extension of his or her personality. “Appreciating art is a visual process that goes beyond beauty and style. Art is about life and discovering it. Coming to appreciate the talent behind a piece is very exciting.”
While issues like condition and scarcity influence value, seriously collecting art requires a great deal of education and experience. Despite images of financial finds on shows like Antiques Roadshow, treasures are rarely found at flea markets. Emerging artists generally have a dealer behind them, are affiliated with reputable galleries and there are many contributors to the price tag. “Auction houses and galleries are eager to educate would-be collectors on upcoming collections and can recommend a conservator,” noted Katlan.
For him, the work may be painstaking at times, but it’s also rewarding. “Returning a work to the artist’s original splendor can be amazing,” he said.
National organizations like the Fine Art Dealers Association (fada.com), The National Antique & Art Dealers Association of America (naadaa.org) and the Art Dealers Association of America (artdealers.org) are non-profit groups whose members are dedicated to promoting professionalism and integrity and can help with buying, selling and appraising art.