Our Laguna: Talk focuses on protection, preservation

The December deluge destroyed or damaged art and valuable documents in homes and studios in Laguna.

In 1993, fire was the culprit.

In 2005, a landslide.

At least some, if not all, of the destruction could have been avoided, according to Scott Haskins.

Haskins, a fine arts conservator and author, talked last week at the Festival of Arts about what folks can do to protect their treasures from natural or man-made disasters and what to do if it happens. His expertise was the springboard for his book, "How to Save Your Stuff From a Disaster," which can be purchased at http://www.saveyourstuff.com.

"After the Northridge earthquake, I got a request to write a pamphlet on how to take care of stuff," Haskins said. "Forty-two million were distributed. Someone said, 'Where's the book?' I said I am a conservator, not a writer. And that is how the book got written."

As a conservator, Haskins has been a consultant for organizations that include the General Services Administration of the U.S. government, the Shroud of Turin project, the historical department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Getty Conservation Institute. His firm routinely collaborates with insurance companies in responding to accidents.

But even average folks have "stuff" that is valuable, if not intrinsically then sentimentally: the family Bible, the children's handprint made in kindergarten, photographs — the loss of any of which would be painful.

More affluent folks might also suffer financial loss if the value of their art and collectibles is not properly documented.

"Insurance companies want evidence of the value," Haskins said, "They won't take your word that something you bought for 50 cents at a garage sale is worth $5,000. The companies get taken for hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and they want proof."

And too many claims can raise a red flag with insurance companies.

"If you make a claim, the companies frown on subsequent claims," said Pat Sparkuhl, a longtime Festival of Arts exhibitor.


An ounce of prevention

Haskins also touched on what folks need to know to prevent papers, photos, letters, journals, figurines, paintings, heirlooms and collectibles from falling apart, being eaten by rats or silverfish, mishaps at home, earthquakes and floods.

Then there's this bit of advice: Keep your hands to yourself, Haskins warned.

"When something is damaged, the first inclination is to do something," Haskins said.

Don't. Particularly don't, if it is wet. At least let it dry out first. Better yet, take it to an expert.

"You can quadruple the cost of a repair, if you handle it badly," Haskins said.

A fingerprint can disfigure a painting — unless the fingerprint is Picasso's. The oils in a human's skin will age on an oil painting at a different rate than the rest of the paint.

Conservators have had centuries to study oils, but acrylic paint, introduced in 1954, is still being studied for its reaction to aging and stress, Haskins aid.

Paintings are like fine wine. They should not be stored where temperatures vary by more than 20 degrees in a 24-hour period.

Hanging a painting over a fireplace is not a good idea, no matter what an interior designer might dictate. Nor is storing paintings in attics or garages a wise decision.

Storage can do more harm than good, if not done with care, Haskins said.

Family photographs should be stored in acid-free, archival albums. Films should go into special metal containers.

"Never, underline never, all caps never, use cardboard boxes, masking or Scotch tape for storage," Haskins warned. "Plastic bins are better.

The bins can keep out bugs, and water and won't leach color onto the contents.

"Don't hang paintings with nails — they can fly off the walls with a sonic boom," Haskins said. "Items on shelves can become missiles. They need to be anchored."

He recommends Museum Wax.

Haskins said moisture is the sworn enemy of paintings. Don't use a damp cloth to clean them. Humidity can shrink canvas, as well as turn paper to pulp.

Water also can lead to mold, which is difficult to eradicate.

Fire is as deadly as water, and they often go hand-in-hand in damaging artwork and documents. Items that don't burn up suffer smoke damage — and a dousing from that pesky water.

Rugs and furniture also need special care.

Storage is important to preservation, but sometimes even the most diligent caretakers lack knowledge.

Festival board member Tom Lamb said the festival collection was abysmally stored, but it has been upgraded and Sparkuhl has been named curator.

Haskins' talk was part of a series of Art Talks on Tuesdays and Thursdays of the 2011 festival season.

"On Tuesdays, exhibiting artists led discussions on medium, influences and trends," said Sharbie Higuchi, festival marketing director. "On Thursdays, the topics ranged from buying to appraising, displaying, restoring and conserving fine art."

The final Art Talk this year will be "The Art of Reimagining Fashion," at 10 a.m. Tuesday. It's presented by the artists who created the pieces in the Festival Runway Fashion Show, which features innovative haute couture made of reused, recycled and reclaimed materials.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 380-4321 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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