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Art and Antique Restorer and Conservator

Art and antique conservators and restorers perform the work of detectives, scientists and artists. They treat damaged objects and help others care for their treasures.

A conservator works to maintain items as they are. A restorer works to return the object to its original state.

"The difference is that a conservator will preserve the artifacts without adding anything to it -- only preserving what you see," explains Shirley Nichols. She is a self-employed restorer and conservator of antiques, mainly porcelains.

"Very old pieces would not be pleasing and 'true' if they were added to. Missing pieces are acceptable," she says.

"A restorer will fabricate missing parts, and bring the close to the original as possible."

The Need to Specialize

Given the high degree of expertise required, conservators and restorers generally specialize in just one or two fields.

Keith Bantock owns an art conservation service. He specializes in the conservation treatment of fine art, including paintings.

"One can gain a great deal of satisfaction from bringing a work of art back to life through restoration," Bantock says. "But it can be very time-consuming and challenging work."

Think about the numerous objects people own that have historical, artistic or sentimental value. Over time, items deteriorate and accidents occur, causing harm. Silverware becomes tarnished, pages yellow, paintings crack and varnish fades.

The first step for a conservator or restorer is to examine the object to determine what it's made of and how it was created.

They also need to study the history of an object. That information helps them decide on the best way to treat the object.

Location and Start-up Costs

You can do this work from anywhere. But it's easier living in or near a city, where there are more potential clients.

John O'Neill is a self-employed conservator. "If you are going to work privately, you can be outside a major city or in a medium-sized city, but you need to be close to the collections or the collectors who have the artifacts," he says.

"Locating in a major city would probably be the best idea. Locating in a medium-sized city that does not have a conservator would be next best."

Start-up costs vary.

"I started out very small, with just a bedroom in my apartment converted to studio," says O'Neill. "I could only do certain treatments, as I didn't have a lot of equipment. I spent about $4,000 on a microscope, mat cutter and various chemicals and supplies.

"Most of my clients come from word of mouth, although I have done some very limited advertising. I now have a larger studio in the basement of a house."

Nichols suggests spending about $600 to $700 on equipment. Two or three jobs could pay for the equipment and supplies that would last for many years.

She says shipping and insurance expenses from out-of-town clients can be included in the estimate for restoration.

"Some specialized equipment is definitely necessary, but a lot can be locally contracted or home built," says Bantock.

Education Required

You'll also need some formal education. Clients and employers typically look for conservators and restorers with a master's degree in the field, along with work experience.

"Ideally, you should have an undergraduate degree in archeology, fine art, art history or a related discipline, followed by a graduate degree in conservation," says O'Neill.

"Your undergraduate degree must also be strong in science, particularly organic or inorganic chemistry."

In the United States, several institutions offer a related program, including Stanford University.

Competition to get into these programs is keen. To qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archeology or studio art and art history, as well as work experience. Knowledge of foreign languages is often helpful.

Other required skills, O'Neill says, include excellent hand-eye coordination, good color discrimination, attention to detail, respect for the object and what it represents and an affinity for chemistry.

Volunteer work at an art gallery conservation unit or archeological dig would also be very helpful, O'Neill says.

Stiff Competition for Jobs

Once you have the training, it's not necessarily easy to get into the field. Some people in this field take on other work to supplement their incomes.

"I would never be able to live on the income: in a good year, I will gross about $6,000," says O'Neill. Along with running his business on the weekends and in the evenings, he works as a conservator of works of art on paper at an art gallery.

"There is a lot of competition," he says. "There are several well-established paper conservators, and many newer ones starting out."

Competition is tight for jobs, agrees Anne Maheux. She is the conservator of prints of drawings at an art gallery.

"Rarely do conservators leave a major institution once they have a permanent job, so there is not much opportunity for young conservators," Maheux says.

"Normally, a graduate must find experience in an internship or other contract situation before going private. If working privately, it is essential to have a good network of contacts," she says.

"There will always be a relatively small employment market for this field, but with the baby boomers approaching retirement age, there will be more vacancies in the next five to 10 years in museums and similar institutions," says Simac.

While self-employed conservators and restorers may face challenges, they can make it in the field with persistence and hard work.


American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
Find info on becoming a conservator in the Career Center

Conservation OnLine
This site offers extensive resources for the conservation professional

Heritage Preservation
Check out the For Kids! section

Back to Career Cluster


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