2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Conservation Funding and Corporate Interest – A Look at the Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Ruth Osborne
2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Bank of America: The Art Conservation Project.

The price tag on conservation for a major work of art is rather steep. The funding of such a project allows a global corporation such as the Bank of America to exhibit its benevolent side to the public. Bank of America’s website for its Merrill Lynch Global Art Conservation Project boasts that it has provided grant funding for “museums in 25 countries for 57 conservation projects” since it began in 2010.[i]

One must also consider that they were one of several U.S. banks to receive billions of dollars from federal bailout in 2008-9, and suffered accusations of fraud and downsizing the very same year the Conservation Project began. The act of doling out millions of dollars to arts non-profits around the world is not without ulterior motive, and support offered to collections on six continents will not go unnoticed by public opinion. This year, Bank of America sets out to fund conservation on many masterpieces in collections around the world, including the following:

Museum of Modern Art, New York City: Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948 (1948); One: Number 31, 1950 (1950); Echo: Number 25, 1951 (1951)                                                                                * Read the Dec. 2012 ArtWatch article on MoMA’s Pollock restoration by Einav Zamir

New Bedford Free Public Library, Massachusetts: Alfred Bierstadt, Sunset Light (1861), Salt Lick in Sunset Glow (c. 1886), Mount Sir Donald (1889)

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin: Daniel Maclise, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854)

National Portrait Gallery, London: Pheonix and Armada portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1575 and c. 1588); Portraits of Edward VI and Edward VI and the Pope (c. 1542 and c. 1570)

National Gallery, Prague: Rembrandt van Rijn, Scholar in His Study, 1635

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Titian, Ecce Homo, 1543

Musée d’Orsay, Paris: Gustave Courbet, L’Atelier du peintre (1854-55)


This project places Bank of America’s funding behind the promotion of culturally and aesthetically revered works of art on six continents. It has promoted, in the case of conservation at the National Gallery of Ireland, a series of study videos examining the themes and artistry behind the paintings. In this video, the Arts and Culture Manager for Bank of America in Ireland explains the financial corporation’s generous desire to improve and “redeem” artistic heritage “for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Their selection process takes into account works of significant cultural importance; a way to ensure their name remains at the forefront of art research and publication. Conservation treatment on the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I in London, for instance, is “fittingly coincident with the celebrations of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II 60 years ago.”[ii] Condition reports on restoration needs include canvas stabilization, yellowed synthetic varnish, pigment fading, flaked paint, and surface abrasion.[iii]  A section on the Bank of America’s project website is devoted to showing the public works of art in the process of restoration:

Detailed images and ultraviolet photographs reveal the work of the conservators and curators as it is being done, allowing the curious public a privileged behind-the-scenes view.[iv]  These also control the way audiences perceive restoration efforts and encourage them to understand the necessity of treatment. Rather than bringing conservators to greater accountability for alterations made to a painting, their work serves to captivate the public and convince them of the importance of the profession.



Another set of research images  and conservation videos available on the National Gallery of Ireland’s website shows conservation specialists meeting the challenges of restoration:                                Taken together, these glimpses make the public aware of all possible changes undergone by the painting over the course of restoration; convenient in case anything is done to significantly alter the painting from its former state.



2013-09-11 - Rembrandt Scholar in His Study National Gallery Prague

Rembrandt, The Scholar in His Study, 1635. Courtesy: National Gallery, Prague.

According to the National Gallery of Prague’s press release concerning Rembrandt’s The Scholar in His Study, this will be both a restoration and research project set to unveil “anticipated new findings about the painting’s technical aspects.” These discoveries will then be suitable for publication in book format as well as on a new international Rembrandt Database:

The project anticipates and promises breakthroughs that will allow the public to learn about a Rembrandt they had never before known.  Furthermore, interested audiences will also be able to watch and track the restoration on a website called “Tracing Rembrandt.” By making these discoveries public, the National Gallery of Prague looks to conservation so that its collection might gain renown and international exposure. Vít Vinas, acting General Director of the National Gallery in Prague, hopes this work will stabilize their Rembrandt so that it may now travel in exhibition.[v]


One must understand the different motivations for a painting to undergo conservation. Such treatment forever alters the visual and chemical nature of a work of art, and therefore should not be taken lightly. When a global corporation funds major conservation projects around the world, collections can be poked and prodded at the bequest of eager directors.  Though the powers that be will insist conservation treatments are essential to the wellbeing of their collection, what results is not always the case. For such unfortunate evidence, see ArtWatch UK articles on the cleaning of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1954 (, and the repainting of Eakins’ The Gross Clinic in 2010 ( We at ArtWatch will certainly be awaiting the results of the upcoming Bank of America-funded conservation treatments.


[i] Bank of America Arts & Culture – Art Conservation. (last visited 22 August 2013).

[ii] Arts News – Herald Scotland. June 6, 2013. (last visited 22 August 2013).

[iii] National Portrait Gallery – The Pheonix and the Pelican: two portraits of Elizabeth I, c. 1575 (last visited 4 September 2013); Steve Urbon, “New Bedford’s priceless paintings get gift of restoration. South Coast Today.  18 June 2013. (last visited 22 August 2013); “New Bedford Free Public Library. New Bedford, Massachusetts.” Bank of America Arts & Culture – Art Conservation. (last visited 4 September 2013).

[iv] Bank of America Arts & Culture – Conservation in Detail. (last visited 22 August 2013).

[v] NG Prague – News – “Tracing Rembrandt: The Famous ‘Scholar in His Study’ Leaves the National Gallery in Prague.” Press release, June 18, 2013. (last visited 4 September 2013).

2006-05-03 Rembrandt Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet before restoration


Several times in recent memory, the restoration of an artwork has led to the re-attribution of a painting, or at the very least, the shift in attribution from a workshop piece to one executed directly by the master. Rembrandt and Titian are the authors of two major works “uncovered” during recent cleaning campaigns.

The discovery of Rembrandt’s unsigned study, Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet, was announced in September of 2005, restored solely under the guidance of Ernst van der Wetering, director of the Rembrandt Research Project, and Martin Bijl, previously of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. No other scholars were consulted or offered the opportunity to view the work, which was set to be seen in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth, celebrated this year.

It was determined that the painting had been touched up at a later date, and what had been identified as later repaint, including the sitter’s fur collar and the black background (which masked a change in the shape of the panel), were not congruent with Rembrandt’s original intentions. The restorers argued that another artist after the fact had modified Rembrandt’s painting in an attempt to sell it. Even though the painting had been excluded from Rembrandt catalogues since the early 20th Century, the restoration paid off — it sold for $4,272,000 at Sotheby’s this past January. Thus, as Rembrandt’s painting had been modified once in an attempt to sell the work, the same decision was made again, centuries later.


2006-05-03 Rembrandt Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet before restoration

Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet – before restoration

2006-05-03 Rembrandt Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet after restoration

Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet – after restoration

Bonnet has received the most attention, although there have been other Rembrandts that have entered the market in this manner. In 2003, a supposed self-portrait was found beneath a portrait of a Russian aristocrat, later selling for $11.3 million at auction. Largely responsible is the Rembrandt Research Project, which has more than once consulted with the owner of a newly discovered painting, and then worked with restorers to unveil what is considered to be an original Rembrandt. As fewer and fewer works by the master remain in private collections and fetch ever increasing prices, the incentive to find and authenticate “new” works from the underpaint of modified canvases is on the rise.

Things did not work out nearly so well for the supposed Titian double-portrait that was discovered under a painting depicting Tobias and the Archangel. Previously attributed to the great Venetian master, it had twice failed to sell at auction, first in 1947 and again in 1963.

As in the case of the Rembrandt, the “discovery” was made that the painting had been retouched by an inferior hand, in this case at the death of the master. Since the unfinished work was not saleable as it was — showing an unknown woman and her daughter — it was presumably modified into a religious subject so that it would have wider appeal on the market.

The nearly two-decade-long process of removing what had been deemed repaint had been begun as far back as 1983, and then the work was put up for auction as a Titian, yet again, this past December at Christies’ in London. Every effort was made to justify the importance of the painting
within Titian’s artistic output, with scholars and interested parties variously proposing that the mature female subject was one of Titian’s own daughters, his cousin, or his mistress. Although the sale price was estimated between $10 and $16 million, the bids failed to meet the reserve, and the work went unsold, as it had in its pre-restored state.

Interestingly, in both the cases of the Rembrandt and the Titian, the works were seen to be somewhat anomalous, something that should have raised a question as to either the authorship of the work beneath, or the original intentions of the artist. Without questioning Rembrandt’s authorship of <b>Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet</b>, it was noted that Rembrandt rarely posed his sitters in profile, that the bonnet was atypical of the master, and that the state of the work — an oil sketch — was less common for his oeuvre. For Titian, it was noted that this was the only mother-daughter portrait known by the artist. Yet even though both discoveries fell into the category of unique works, the traits that made them such were used as ways to increase the value of the works, rather than question their authorship.

The trend is likely to only increase. In February, it was announced that an original Frans Hals portrait of Pieter Jacobsz Olycan was discovered underneath heavy repaint that had caused the work to long be identified as a copy. Once worth just a few thousand pounds, it is now expected to fetch 7 million pounds at auction. In this case, the delay in identifying the true master of the work was exacerbated by the fact that Hals himself is believed to have changed the costume on his sitter, covering the original suit with a fur-trimmed coat.

While restorers have always been interested in the notion of discovery, uncovering heretofore unseen details of well-known works, this process of treasure-hunting on old master paintings is even more ominous. Good paintings will be destroyed at a faster pace, with the hopes — whetted by x-ray studies — of finding better, or at least more marketable, paintings beneath. As the art market clamors for more originals in what should be a finite pool, the temptation will grow to discover more works by the master painters, even incomplete ones, ones that the artist never intended to sell or show, hidden under the paintings of others.

2004-09-07 Edvard Munch Vampire Munch Museum

Issues of Custodianship

Issues relating to the custodianship of art have recently emerged in the popular press. In addition to the ongoing debate about restoration and conservation, it has become increasingly apparent that museums and other guardians of cultural property must determine how best to protect those objects with which they have been entrusted. In the last few years, there have been numerous highly publicized cases not only of theft of prominent artistic treasures, but also of acts of vandalism.

The most obvious case in point is the recent theft of two paintings by Edvard Munch from the Munch Museum in Norway, in which two armed robbers tore The Scream and Madonna from the walls of the museum while the staff and visitors watched. The director of the City of Oslo’s art collections has noted — though this comes as no surprise — that the security of the museum was inadequate. Following the theft, it was noted that the surveillance equipment was outdated and that the camera at the entrance was disconnected, even though in January they received government funds to improve security conditions. All of this despite a “warning shot” that had been fired in February of 1994, when another version of the same painting was stolen from the National Art Museum in Oslo. There, even with better security — including functioning cameras and the police quickly responding to the alarm — the two men involved made off with the painting in under one minute. The systems in place to guard the masterpiece were questioned, since the work had been moved from the more secure first floor to a special ground-floor exhibition installed to coincide with the Olympics. The thieves even found the time to leave a note to the museum, “Thanks for the poor security.” The paintings was discovered, undamaged, around three months later. Of course, in the case of Munch, there was an earlier “warning shot” still: Paal Enger, who was jailed for the 1994 theft, had previously stolen another Munch painting, Vampire, from the Munch Museum in 1988. (Referring to himself as a gentleman, he denies any involvement in the recent crime).

2004-09-07 Munch Museum

Munch Museum in Norway

Such events are not at all uncommon, as exemplified by the recent thefts of works by other masters, such as Benvenuto Cellini’s Saltcellar stolen in May of 2003 from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Duke of Buccleuch’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, attributed by some to Leonardo da Vinci, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, Scotland in August of the same year.

Unlike the Munch paintings, Cellini’s Saltcellar was stolen after hours, with the perpetrators scaling external scaffolding to reach a window, break it, then shatter the glass case in which the object was housed, despite motion and heat sensors. Alarms appeared to have gone off, but were reset by a guard without physically inspecting the room. A ransom request was sent to the insurance company for 5 million Euro.

While there are certainly better security systems available, the question has been raised as to whether or not implementing such measures would be prudent. It has been noted, in the case of the recent Munch theft, that automatic gates that would effectively lock down the museum if an alarm was tripped would be a safety hazard, possibly endangering the lives of museum-goers. Had the painting been more securely attached to the wall rather than by steel wires, the argument goes, it might have suffered even greater damage during the robbery. And arming guards is an equally harrowing prospect, given that a determined thief would resort to greater violence. In any case, “high-tech” systems have often been defeated with the simplest of implements, as in the case of the removal of two Van Gogh paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the perpetrators thwarted the alarms and surveillance systems including cameras, motion detectors and round-the-clock guards using a ladder to climb onto a roof, a cloth to muffle the sound of the breaking window, and a rope to make their getaway.

The theft of works of art is not even the most insidious of the threats facing art objects. They are also frequently vandalized by people usually classified as “deranged,” both within museums and in public locations. There are many famous examples, with the most notorious perpetrator, Piero Cannata, attacking Michelangelo’s David in 1991 with a hammer, defacing Filippo Lippi’s Funeral of St. Stephen in Prato Cathedral in 1993 with an indelible black marker, and scribbling on a Jackson Pollock in 1999. Although he has been intermittently hospitalized, he has recently appeared in the press as a tour guide working in Florence as part of a day release program from a psychiatric institution. Michelangelo’s Pietá was likewise attacked in 1972 by Laszlo Toth, who subsequently spent two years in an asylum. Rembrandt has perhaps faired the worst, with a 1985 slashing and acid attack on Danae in the Hermitage by a Lithuanian national declared insane by the courts. In addition, a 41-year-old psychiatric patient sprayed Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum with acid in 1990, marking the third incident in the history of a work that had previously been slashed in 1911 and 1975.

2004-09-07 Rembrandt Nightwatch Rijksmuseum AmsterdamHowever, in recent years there has been a tremendous amount of damage done to art objects that are even more difficult to protect, either from thieves, mentally-ill vandals, or just rowdy individuals. Public monuments, both architectural and sculptural, that are outside of the considerably safer museum environment, are more difficult to safeguard, even with the increasing presence of security cameras. Italy’s fountains are seemingly impossible to protect. In 1997, the Neptune fountain by Ammannati was vandalized twice, with the second incident resulting in the breaking off of one of the horses’ hooves. The city had recently installed eight remote control television cameras, though their view was obstructed by scaffolding. That same year, Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in Rome’s Piazza Navona was damaged when three men climbed onto the statue and broke the tail of a sea-serpent. (One of the perpetrators vowed to sue the city over damage to his foot incurred during the incident).

More recent events have brought the issue again to the fore, with a string of attacks in both Rome and Venice in June and July of 2004. In Venice, a statue of St. Francis and another of St. Mark the Evangelist at the Redentore church on the Giudecca were broken, and a capital on the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco was attacked with a hammer as well, shattering a carving of Moses with the Tablets of the Law into 17 pieces. In Rome, statues were damaged in the area around Piazza del Popolo, and Bernini’s Fontana delle Api was another target, with one of the bees being defaced.

But what to do? Responses are invariably similar. Giorgio Rossini, the superintendent of Venice’s environmental and architectural heritage responded to recent events saying, “We can’t cordon off the entire city.” Following the 1997 Bernini incident, the mayor of Rome expressed a certain amount of defeatism as well, remarking “we cannot militarize the city”. Nonetheless, just that has been suggested. While fines have been raised and alarms and security cameras are multiplying, others have demanded more drastic measures. Art historian Federico Zeri has called for round-the-clock guards posted at the most important monuments, even employing the army for such purposes, and civilian “anti-vandalism squads” have also been considered. But as with the cases of theft, the issue of balancing accessibility and security remains the main consideration. Attempting to truly ensure the safety of these objects — particularly those to which the public has enjoyed regular access — might upset that balance. Certainly, every technological device that might improve security should be employed, and yet, ultimately, no work is safe from determined vandals and thieves. We must make particularly hard choices to decide how much we are willing to lose in our attempt to safeguard the objects with which history has entrusted us.