Even as you read this, somewhere in Delhi a friend’s Husain is being painstakingly restored, its dirty chrome being cleaned of over five decades of grime to reveal a sunshine yellow patina. When completed, it will look almost new, as though painted recently — only its subject and treatment revealing it as an early work of the master. For years, the painting hung at the friend’s house, not so much neglected as unremarked. That will likely change when it returns, picked clean and polished, a Husain that will occupy pride of place in a home that has nurtured it but — as in most homes — failed to realise that art, like humans, requires regular pampering and cosseting.
Summer is a light period for the art fraternity, ideal time for you to comb through your collection to investigate what requires resuscitation. Canvases in India are liable to damage as a result of dust and pollution, compounded by fluctuating temperatures that can cause anything from a change in colours to fungus and mold. There are spoilages caused by accident or nature — a spilled drink, scratches, insects. Mostly, though, the original patinas become dull and dirty, the slow process going unnoticed if, particularly, the paintings have hung on the wall for as long as you can remember, so that the damage remains unfortunately unobserved.
Every few years, therefore, an inventory check carried out with ruthlessness becomes necessary. Airconditioning might have dripped water on the watercolour hung under it; a break in the painting might have allowed a family of spiders to make their home at the back of the painting; sunlight might have resulted in fading; board might have become fragile and paper might have warped or gained waves.
The low-season is appropriate to spend your money not so much on buying new art as on maintaining it. It’s worth the while to get works re-framed every few years, changing mounts (and what a difference that can make to a painting), using archival backing, and if you can afford it, replacing glass not with acrylic but with museum glass that does not allow damaging UV light to pass through it. Not only is the housekeeping essential in terms of longevity, it gives your collection a fresh lease of life.
Experts suggest that annually 10 per cent of the cost of your collection ought to be spent on its maintenance. While that might be a tad steep, a sum ought to be earmarked to ensure that your paintings, or sculpture, are allowed to age well. Galleries now routinely offer annual service contracts where they write up condition reports and pay attention to even potential damage. Airconditioners these days come with inbuilt humidifiers as well as dehumidifiers, and it is important to ensure that the ambient temperature be maintained steadily — steep variations, especially on a daily basis, can impact the shelf life of works of art. The storage of works in a vault, or basement, require great care and constant monitoring against damage by insects.
Experts will laugh off fears that they charge a higher fee for restoring an expensive painting, insisting that remuneration is based on the quantity and quality of work that is required to be done rather than its intrinsic value as a painting. In case of severe damage, restorers are likely to ask for photographs of the work in its original condition. It makes sense, therefore, to maintain a file of images — in no time, even your new acquisitions will become old works, and if you want to pass them down as heirlooms to the next generation, you have to start treating them as just that — beginning now.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated