Eagle-eyed look at art

Conservator: Painstaking efforts to assess the damage to the state law library's set of 19th-century Audubon works has begun.

November 19, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Where other people see wondrously detailed depictions of birds, Rolf Kat sees rips, stains and grimy fingerprints marring valuable art.

Kat, a conservator from Philadelphia, has seen four volumes of blemished artwork in the Maryland State Law Library, where he spent several days this month examining bound volumes of James J. Audubon's 19th- century "Birds of America" subscription series prints.

He's methodically scanned each print, touching worn edges, assessing damage before typing notes into a laptop computer. Those notes say the prints - which could be worth millions of dollars - are in so-so, maybe "reasonable" condition, in need of a conservator's tender care.

The volumes have nested unobtrusively near the doorway to the law library in the Court of Appeals building in Annapolis for three decades. They lie locked in a glass-topped wooden case that allows the display of one print at a time - the oriole is usually up for baseball's Opening Day - under the library's fluorescent lights.

This year, concern about the prints' condition and word that a set in pristine condition commanded a surprising $8.8 million last year at auction led library director Michael S. Miller to seek the conservator's expert eye. An unexpected $25,7000 bequest from a Gaithersburg woman's estate made the evaluation possible.

A few thousand dollars from the gift is covering the evaluation. The rest could go toward conservation or improved storage, Miller said.

Miller sought the evaluation knowing that thorough conservation is likely to run at least $200,000, a figure beyond what he expects legislators to fund. He's not sure where he might find the money for a full restoration of the prints.

In a report he plans to complete by the end of the year, Kat will suggest possible sources of grant funds and creative ways for the library to amass the money.

It's clear to him that a complete restoration would require unbinding the prints, removing a rotting cotton backing, bathing them for better preservation, mending them and arranging for climate-controlled storage and display.

Audubon created the prints between 1827 and 1838 from his now-famous watercolors. Even a century and a half later, their vibrant colors and detailed depictions are stunning.

About 200 subscription sets of the prints - called "double-elephant" size because the sheets were about 39 1/2 inches by about 19 1/2 inches - were sold in the 19th century. Why the state subscribed - or whether David Ridgely, the first librarian of what started as a state repository for official, valuable and reference material, had an eye for art or a love of birds - is unclear. But the library came into possession of the prints for about $2,000.

The law library has not had its set appraised. The pages are worn from the decades of visitors casually flipping through the volumes. Edges were hacked off for rebinding in 1921. Significant identifying marks, such as a print's number within the sequence, are gone from some pages. The names of the birds have been chopped off others, but glued back on to several.

Kat has set up shop at the state Law Library in a tiny room where a wall is lined with tomes about psychiatric testimony, mass tort cases and such. He works with an open volume to his left, his laptop to his right, a yellow tape measure at the ready.

A native of the Netherlands, Kat, 48, started out as a goldsmith and jewelry designer, then studied art conservation, worked for museums and then freelance. Eight years ago he landed at the nonprofit Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, where he's now a senior conservator.

As he reviews the prints, Kat explains that in the 1920s, attitudes toward conservation were not sophisticated and that the binding wasn't done with an artist's eye. Even for 1921 it wasn't a great job, he says, wincing.

The cotton backing on the rag paper has acted like sandpaper, abrading the color of some prints. Blots and blobs, smears and smudges, bleeding adhesive and mottling of the paper mar the art throughout.

"Most of this is embedded in the paper. You can get some of it out with white vinyl erasers," he says.

If the colors have hardened - a tiny dot of water on each color can test for that in the lab - the prints might be soaked in a rejuvenating bath of treated deionized water. That will help deacidify them, soften the adhesive to remove the backing and plump the now-brittle and crushed paper fibers so much that when they swell, the paper could expand by "this much," Kat says, squeezing his fingers to show an inch and a half.

The hot, dry library air has sucked moisture from the prints and exposure to fluorescent lights damages colors, he says.

Most pages have tears from years of page-turning, gray fingerprints and dirt. Mats, Kat says, would go a long way toward hiding imperfections on many prints, though not the ones in which colored backgrounds and birds' toes have been lopped off.

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