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ARTISANS

The alchemists of adhesion work their magic

An elite group of ceramic restorers can return even a shattered piece to seemingly pristine condition.

March 11, 2004|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Geoff Brookes has spent years mixing glues strong enough to hold together large porcelain statues. He can take a figurine, broken into dozens of pieces, and reconstruct it back to its pristine state.

Part alchemist, part artisan, Brookes belongs to a small cadre of craftsmen who have elevated ceramic restoration to a science: Repairs have become so sophisticated that it takes a trained eye to tell if a piece was ever broken.

"The best part about this job is being able to bring back a family heirloom," said Brookes, who grew up working in pottery studios in Stoke-on-Trent, headquarters for England's ceramics industry. "It's like restoring people's memories."

There are several husband-and-wife teams currently restoring ceramics in Southern California. Brookes, who has been repairing broken china here for more than 20 years, works along with his wife, Elena, at two shops -- Horowitz and Brookes in Agoura Hills and Brookes Restorations & Engraving Co. on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.

In Costa Mesa, John and Angela Foster started their ceramic repair business, Pick Up the Pieces, nearly five decades ago. Working with a large staff of artists, the Fosters have fixed items ranging from a broken beak on a giant ceramic eagle to a cracked plaster handprint made by a child.

And Rafail and Polina Golberg set up Golberg Restoration Co. on the edge of Beverly Hills after they immigrated to the United States 20 years ago. They both worked as restorers for museums in Kiev.

"I tell people if they break something, don't be angry," Rafail Golberg said. "Everything can be fixed." If a beloved ceramic breaks, he said, simply collect and wrap all the pieces, even tiny fragments, in a paper towel and take them to a restorer. Although it might be tempting to first try to fix the piece yourself, it could make the job of having it professionally repaired much more difficult.

"It can be very hard to unglue a piece," Brookes said. "There's always a chance that it can cause more damage. I always say that it's better if someone does a poor job of gluing it back together, as opposed to a mediocre job."

The restoration process usually includes a number of steps.

First, the broken sections are cleaned and polished. Next comes the glue. The Brookeses, Golbergs and Fosters have spent years mixing epoxies, pastes and fixatives to come up with the perfect bonding agent. They guard their methods like a secret family recipe. Although Brookes divulged that he sometimes uses sophisticated dental materials to help fasten a piece together, he declined to give details.

The restorers can also recast fingers, hands and delicate flowers on figurines, using a variety of clays and plasters and, in some cases, auto-body filler.

After the plaster and glue have dried, the artisans go to work on smoothing out the edges with filling and sizing. "When you run your finger across, you won't be able to detect that there is any break there," Brookes said.

Next, the object is repainted with an airbrush -- a task that requires patience and an uncanny ability to mix and match paint. Finally, the ceramic is coated with protective glaze.

The entire procedure can take days, and sometimes weeks, to complete -- and it can be costly. Restoration prices can range from $50 for a small piece to thousands of dollars for a larger item. There's another hitch: Once a piece is restored, it can be used only for display purposes. Water will loosen the glue.

Many customers want their ceramics restored simply for sentimental reasons, according to Brookes. One woman who came in this month cried as she handed over the pieces of a Cybis porcelain head, a gift from her recently deceased mother. "It meant a lot to her to have it put back together," he said.

Chris Carter, an appraiser who has worked with the Fosters for seven years at their Orange County business, said he often works with clients who are moved to tears over a broken, or restored, object. "It's a very unique business," Carter said. "It has quite an effect on you when you see something come in a million pieces and then come out whole."

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More help: Most local museums have conservators on staff to offer advice on finding the right person to restore ceramics. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, based in Washington, D.C., also provides a list of restorers. It can be reached at (202) 452-9545 or through its website at aic.stan ford.edu/.

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Local sources: Brookes Restorations can be reached at (323) 937-8600; Pick Up the Pieces is at (949) 645-9953; and Golberg Restoration Co. is at (310) 652-0735.

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