Why Condition is Everything for Works on Paper

"Portrait of Master St. Pierre as a Young Boy" by Mary Cassatt, c. 1906, pastel on paper, Guarisco Gallery

“An original print has a value outside being a decorative piece. Condition is everything.” Henry Gerrish of the family-owned gallery, Gerrish Fine Art.

Representing nearly 40 exhibitors each year, London’s Works on Paper Fair brings together a wealth of knowledge in the field. At this year’s fair, our editors met with dealers from a range of areas to discuss the most common condition issues facing a work on paper, and what collectors should look for when considering purchasing a work.

Lot 23, “L’Employé des Pompes Funèbres” by Jean-Émile Laboureur, 1902,
color etching, Swann Auction Galleries (March 2)

Defining a “Work on Paper”

Works on paper – a wide-ranging category that includes drawings, watercolors, and prints – are images made by applying materials such as paint, charcoal, graphite to a thin sheet composed of fibers derived from organic matter such as trees or grass.

The nature of paper is inherently delicate and susceptible to wear and aging, thus requiring careful storage, display, and occasional attention from an established paper conservator. As it can directly impact the value of a work, condition is of paramount importance when considering a work for your collection.

Common Condition Issues

1) Foxing: Reddish brown spots that present when a work is ageing, especially when humidity is present.

2) Buckling or Warping: Uneven paper surface, generally caused by humidity.

3) Creasing: Grooves in the surface of the paper caused by bending, due to poor handling or improper storage.

4) Tears, Rips & Holes: Delicate paper can tear and rip easily with insufficient care and holes may be caused by insects.

5) Discoloration: Degradation of paper in this way tends to be caused by two factors. First, acidity, which is not easily preventable, and is often a feature of paper manufactured from 1850-1950. Second, oxidation: a yellowing effect, also caused by the chemicals inherent in the paper, but initiated by light.

6) Mat Burn: Discoloration in the print caused by acid in non-archival mounts. Also look out for color transfer from any backing boards.

Lot 62, “Les Becheurs” by Jean-François Millet, 1855-56, etching printed in brownish black on
Japan paper, Swann Auction Galleries (March 2)

Issues That Can’t Be Remedied

7) Trimming: You want any work on paper to have a good margin and a deckled edge. A deckled edge is the rough edge which characterizes a piece of paper that has been torn to a certain size. For this reason, many dealers of works on paper will exhibit the paper in its entirety, rather than using a mount.

8) Fading: A clever restorer may be able to work into oils if they’ve faded over time, but you can’t add to a faded watercolor.

Pro Tip: Before buying a work on paper, ask for a full examination. A great deal can be solved with the right treatment. It is possible, says Henry Gerrish, to ameliorate problems with prints, such as toning and warping, with a water bath in sunlight – but Gerrish doesn’t recommend this approach for a novice. Instead, he suggests consulting a qualified conservation expert from a museum.

On the Kresque Rocks” by Liz Haywood-Sullivan, 2010, pastel on paper, Vose Galleries

How to Take Care of Works on Paper

1) Mounts: Be sure to swap any sub-standard mounts for mounts of archival quality.

2) Sunlight: Keep the work away from direct sunlight. Although no glass will filter out 100 percent of UV rays, it’s also worth investing in picture framing UV protective glass. If storing work, the darker the storage space, the better.

3) Clips: Make sure any paper clips have been changed for archival quality paper clips. “It may cost £30 against £5, but that’s a worthwhile investment against the future of your artwork,” says Lizzie Collins of Zuleika Gallery.

4) Moisture: Keep work in as dry a place as possible. A cold environment often indicates humidity, so aim to keep work in a temperate dry environment. Humidity may cause paper to warp.

Complex Considerations

“Collage and more sculptural works, like Richard Smith and Terry Frost, can present a dilemma when it comes to the ethics of conservation,” says Lizzie Collins. If glue has begun to mark the paper, should it be restored, or is this indicative of the originality of the work and the materials available at the time to make it, and therefore respected in its state?

Japanese paper, although it looks fragile, is often considerably more robust than other types of paper, and so can be easier to restore, and is often preferred by paper conservators.

Japanese prints tend to have been less subject to fading because they were often kept in albums. “This means that for work of a similar age, Japanese prints tend to be much more vibrant than western prints,” says Andrew Daniel of the Japanese Print Shop. However, this presents other issues such as bookworms, and the fact that often the print will have been glued directly onto a backing board.

Works on paper are delicate and intricate, and impossibly varied. The consistent advice from dealers and collectors is to buy what you love, and take care of it. And although it may not be cheap, if the work is of great value, either sentimental or financial, seek the advice of a qualified paper conservator.

The 2017 Works on Paper Fair ran from February 9 – 12 at the Royal Geographical Society, London. Among the exhibitors were Lizzie Collins, Zuleika Gallery; Henry Gerrish, Gerrish Fine Art; Percy Barkes & Andrew Daniel of Japanese Print Shop.