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Art World Fix-It Experts Pick Up the Precious Pieces

August 08, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a recent Friday afternoon, just a couple of minutes after the appointed hour, the doorbell rang at the Coldwater Canyon home of John and Stefanie Griswold.

"Is this Griswold Conservation?" asked the stranger, a middle-aged man with a worried look on his face. Stefanie, 30, assured him he was in the right place. He walked back to his car and returned with a white plastic shopping bag.

Stefanie's 43-year-old husband, John, introduced himself and led the man into the study. They sat down at a large, dark wood table.

From the plastic bag, the man removed an ornate metal figure, about 8 inches tall, then another piece, the base. It turned out that the man, an architect, had been toting the pieces around for months. Somehow, while working in a client's condominium, he'd knocked the statue off a ledge.

John placed the figure on the base and examined the break. The repair, he said, would probably take half a day. At about $85 an hour, the total would be around $400. It was obvious, upon hearing the news, that man felt even more regretful of the accident.

After the man left, John said the piece had probably been purchased in India for under $20. He hadn't told the client because he knew the information would not make the man, who was set on a professional repair job, feel any better.

The Griswolds, who have been in business together for two years, are art conservators, specializing in objects, artifacts and architectural materials. Their work, a combination of art practice and history, science, sleuthing--and yes, psychology--runs the gamut from beloved tchotchkes to multimillion-dollar monuments. Their clients range from Beverly Hills matrons and Hollywood studios to world-class museums.

"You never know when the phone rings," said John, "what the next thing will be."

A walk though the Griswolds' home studio, housed in a former bedroom and the garage, and featuring near White House-level security, certainly bore this out.

There was a decomposing wall painting fragment of a celestial dancer from approximately 1100 AD, a 300-year-old wood and lacquer Burmese Buddha about 4 feet tall that had fallen in on itself, an Italian marble bust of a peasant girl dating to the late 19th century with iron stains, a Southwestern Indian clay bowl with a broken rim shard, an electric blue Yves Klein Winged Victory sculpture needing a thorough cleaning, even a shattered juice glass.

And while the Griswolds are closed-mouth about the identities of their individual clients--in fact, sometimes even they don't know who owns a particular piece until a check arrives revealing the name of a big celeb or studio exec--they are willing to dish about objets.

The juice glass for instance, seemed unremarkable, but had great sentimental value to the client, said Stefanie. It had been purchased at a grocery store in the 1920s, and was his only link to his mother.

A more dramatic tale involved one of several falcon statues used in the 1941 film classic "The Maltese Falcon." The piece's owner, a private collector, approached the Griswolds for two reasons. First, the piece required cleaning. But more important, another falcon was about to be auctioned. The owner wanted to know if his was the one used in the famous scene during which the film's villain, played by Sydney Greenstreet, repeatedly scratches the surface with a pen knife to determine whether the lead exterior conceals a treasure in gold.

The Griswolds sat down with a tape of the movie and the falcon. Using a microscope, they found scratch marks on the statue, then compared them, said Stefanie, to Greenstreet's movements "stroke by stroke." After a lot of rewinding, the Griswolds were able to confirm that their client's falcon was the famous statuette.

"More than half of our clients are small to medium museums or public institutions or foundations," said John, who likes working on "big complicated things like buildings and monuments."

Stefanie prefers "ethnographic stuff," objects that people have used. Her specialty is intricate work such as beading, "things that make your eyes cross," she joked. But both she and John, who have graduate degrees in art conservation (and who met at a conference) are well versed in many mediums and methods.

Sometimes, their work prevents them from enjoying what others might delight in: "It's hard for me to go through a museum," said Stefanie. "I look through a conservator's eye and see things that need to be done."

And yet, said John, "We've come to appreciate a really spectacularly deteriorating object."

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