LOS ANGELES — Robert Aitchison pulls a large box from a drawer in a file cabinet, lifts the lid and reveals the contents: a hardly recognizable clump of crumpled and torn paper.
His job--if the client gives him the go-ahead--will be to take that mess of paper and restore it so that it can be used in a court of law. The paper is the ship's log from an oil-drilling vessel that sank in the South China Sea and may be used as evidence in a lawsuit resulting from the disaster.
Welcome to the highly specialized and painstaking world of paper conservation.
The ship's log would be added to a long list of documents and artwork--some items worth millions of dollars--that Aitchison and his partner, Mark Watters, have restored at their studio on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood over nearly a decade.
Their business is believed to be the largest of a handful of private paper conservators in Los Angeles.
As specialized as their field is, paper conservators usually establish areas of focus. Aitchison, for example, is especially skilled in photography restoration. Linda Shaffer of Los Angeles and Paula Volent of Venice, both of whom have private studios, specialize in contemporary art work.
Shaffer, who has worked on pieces by such artists as David Hockney, says her specialty allows her to work directly with the artist.
"Because the artist is alive, I can say, 'Do we have something we can play around with (in the conservation process)?' " Shaffer said.
The works Aitchison and Watters have conserved range from Toulouse-Lautrec posters to Ansel Adams photographs, from wallpaper to historic documents, and from family albums with only sentimental value to 400-year-old Persian miniature paintings.
They have restored valuable pieces of art shredded during marital disputes, paintings that family dogs have mistaken for fire hydrants, and watercolors damaged in fires. The maladies they fix include stains caused by mold, tears and food spills, and damage caused by insects or cellophane tape. And through it all, they prove that paper is not nearly the flimsy material that many believe.
"I worked on a gouache--an opaque watercolor--that sold for almost $3 million. That was probably the most valuable thing I restored," Watters said. "But on the other hand, you can have something that's a family thing, and it's not even worth what we charge for the treatment, but they want it preserved."
The partners' clients include museums, galleries, art collectors, corporations with art collections, libraries and individuals. They have done work for virtually every major museum in Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"During the course of the last seven years, he (Aitchison) has proven to be one of the masters of the field," said Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "He and Watters . . . do work that's world-class quality."
Victoria Blyth-Hill, senior paper conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, agreed.
"I've known Aitchison and Watters for 10 years, and I find them to be the most trustworthy, high-level, professional conservators I've met," Blyth-Hill said. "They're not only wonderful people, but cautious conservators."
Although most of their conservation is of artwork, they and their associate, Lisa Forman, also have preserved archival pieces, including the original handwritten lyric for "Battle Hymn of the Republic." One restoration project can take from a few weeks to several years.
"It can be tedious at times," Aitchison said. "But the nice thing is you get to work on beautiful art objects, things you studied in art history classes. You get to work on Degas pastels and Klee watercolors. And you're preserving culture."
The process of paper conservation involves several steps. The conservator first assesses the condition of the piece to determine whether it can be restored.
A series of tests then determines what procedure to use. Conservation may involve removal of soil, tape and spots; a bath, usually in purified water, and reconstruction using Japanese starch paste as an adhesive and thin, transparent Japanese paper as a lining.
If paint is flaking off, the conservator repairs it with a fine brush or even a syringe. But conservators generally avoid retouching the work because they believe that would be tampering with the piece's artistic integrity.
"You want to feel like you're helping the piece, not imposing yourself," Watters said.
Finally, the restored work is humidified and flattened.
"The work is rarely ever monotonous or boring," Forman said. "You can't rely on a formula."
The training for conservation combines higher education, apprenticeships and internships.
"Studying to be a conservator is similar to being a doctor--you go through a series of internships," Volent said.