Paint by Numbers

Conservationist Larry Pace Uncovers Art’s True Value

AS HAWAII’S PREMIER PAINTING AND MURAL CONSERVATIONIST – whose services are sought by museums and billionaires – Larry Pace, of Pace Art Conservation, is constantly called upon to undo others’ blunders and touch-ups.

Whether “fixing” a detail from this decade or centuries ago, it takes a rare combination of patience, a historian’s memory, an artist’s hand and a detective’s mindset.

“Fifty pecent to 70 percent of the work I do is usually the result of someone else doing something they shouldn’t have done,” he says, noting the large number of unqualified, so-called “art restorers”.

Pace’s work ranges from minor touch-ups to major alterations. The gamut runs from brightening a dark sky to achieve a sunnier ambience, to updating a woman’s clothing or jewelry to suit new trends. He’s even been asked to turn topless young women into boys by a client who found nudity offensive.

Most commonly, Pace is asked by well-heeled women to update hair, dress and jewelry in portraits – while the men never seem to ask for changes.

And while always sticking to the themes provoked by the original artist, there are issues, still.

Pace starts by photographing each work, utilizing UV and infrared technology to determine what’s going on beneath the surface of a painting. Particularly difficult as Hawaii’s environment is to care for art (never-ending sunlight, humidity and salt air), Pace factors in human carelessness, and you’ve got the perfect storm for a conservationist’s nightmare. Basement storage here has resulted in canvases few would care to touch, much less deem salvageable.

“In Hawaii there are termites, silverfish and roaches. I’ve unfurled some canvases stored in basements and rats have run out. You never know what’s going to be inside … I go in there with dust masks,” adds Pace.

When insects have eaten holes into linen canvases, Pace employs his wife, Rie, to reweave the canvas. Mind you, this is no mere family convenience: Rie endured similar training in art history, studio art and organic chemistry in Japan. In fact, her teachers are connected with Pace’s teachers – the famed Caroline and Sheldon Keck – considered pioneers in the movement to create an ethical code of standards for art conservation. (This includes being in the business of buying and selling art.)

Sheldon Keck, it should be noted, was one of World War II’s “Monument Men” who followed troops into war-torn cities to rescue stolen or displaced works of art. Pace adds that the work of identifying and cataloging these works continues to this day.

Over decades and centuries, familiarity with original work is lost. During this time, those wishing to increase the value of art have been known to add “unnatural” aging techniques such as heavy varnishing, which can be devised to mimic Rembrandt, as an example. Removing this varnish, says Pace, often reveals colors much more vibrant than collectors imagined.

In some cases, skies have been painted over with regular house paint. Pace has experienced firsthand the removal of regular house paint over cerulean skies which, after he’s finished, exposes things not seen for centuries.

Working slowly with nothing larger than a small brush or synthetic resin, it is not uncommon for a restoration project on a single oil painting to take more than two years.

Pace is unapologetic.

“There’s a responsibility to owning art. You have to respect the artist. The paintings are his legacy and all that we have left of him,” he says.

At least some of the responsibility for future restorations lies with today’s artists, and Pace has been called upon to talk to artists about the nature of materials and how they can be expected to age.

Lining with polyester instead of linen, for instance, is one way to thwart insects from eating away at canvases.

“Knowing your materials, you can manipulate it better,” adds Pace. “But we’ve gotten to a point where spontaneity is all that matters – which means job security for future generations. Already there are plastic, ivory and chocolate restorers. The 19th century French and Swiss were big on chocolate sculptures – and they’re not holding up well.”

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