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PRACTICAL VIEW

Putting All the Pieces in Their Place

January 27, 1994|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rosa Lowinger recently repaired a pre-Columbian sculpture shattered into 40 pieces.

Frank Brooks reassembled an English pottery dog from about 150 shards.

Lowinger and Brooks aren't magicians. They're among the Los Angeles art conservators who repair broken sculpture, china, glass, vases and figurines.

"A lot of people aren't aware that things can be repaired," says Brooks, owner of Brooks Restorations and Crystal Engraving in West Hollywood.

"When something someone loves gets damaged," Lowinger says, "people first have an emotional response: It's gone and I've got to throw it out to cut my emotional losses. Then it becomes a double tragedy. People lose things they don't have to.

"Just about everything can be repaired, although some things may not look quite new. There is a body of scientific knowledge about what adhesives, chemicals, resins and paints to use. You apply them on a per-case basis depending on what the piece is and what its history is."

Since objects require different work, it's hard to say what repairs cost.

"The range in town is about $80 to $100 an hour," says Lowinger, director of the Sculpture Conservation Studio in Los Angeles. "People who repair paintings or works of art on paper might charge a bit more. Some things are quite simple and can be done in an hour or less. But you can always get a free estimate and make a decision."

Many Angelenos must be deciding that the price is right. Some conservators report major increases in business since last week's quake broke heirlooms and valued objects in homes across Los Angeles.

"It's like it was before the recession," Lowinger says. "I'm almost as busy as I've ever been."

In West Hollywood, Brooks and his staff of six typically repair chips on crystal glasses and restore fingers or arms missing from statues or beaks broken off porcelain birds.

In recent days, they've taken in a stream of quake-damaged statues, figurines and vases, says Brooks, a former master potter in England. One client brought in a collection of Lalique crystal, which Brooks says he can repair.

Meanwhile, in her upper-floor studio in a residential duplex, Lowinger is surrounded by a marble statue broken into five parts, a pink sandstone sculpture crumbled into 10 pieces and a cracked 3-foot-high sculpture of a tooth. Large work tables and power tools, air brushes and microscopes fill the room.

"What we aim for is that you can't tell if the piece has been repaired if you're standing two or three feet away and aren't searching for the repair," says Lowinger, who earned a master's degree in art conservation from New York University and trained as an archeologist.

She also wants the restoration to look good for at least 50 years. "Our goal is to use class A materials that are tested to not change their properties," she says. "They won't discolor, lose their adhesive quality or peel."

Steps also can be taken before an earthquake to prevent damage. Lowinger recommends putting sticky wax on the bottom of objects to prevent them from "walking" on a shelf. Sculptures can be anchored by tying fishing line to their center of gravity and attaching the filament to the wall with screw eyes, she says.

Damaged paintings and papers can also be improved, conservators say.

One conservator is rarely qualified to treat all damaged materials, however. Consumers may seek qualified professionals by writing to the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1717 K St. N.W., Suite 301, Washington, D.C. 20006.

"When you get that list, you get with it a special brochure explaining how to use the list, how to work with the conservator and what to expect," says Sarah Z. Rosenberg, executive director of the institute. "That's the most important part of the mailing.

"The list is divided by membership categories, which are indications of experience, professional involvement and recognition. The category of fellow is the highest each person can attain.

"When talking with a conservator, the client should ask for references or call for references at a local museum."

The customer and conservator should also discuss various treatments, Rosenberg says.

"When the work is completed, the conservator should provide a written report describing treatments that were carried out as well as the results."

The price of not seeking out a conservator, Lowinger says, may be throwing out a beloved memento.

"A lot of people would like to have repairs done," Brooks says. "When people discover us, it's surprising what they bring in."

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