On April 10, 2013, Friends of the Uffizi Gallery were given a private tour of The Fine Arts Conservancy in West Palm Beach with its founder and director, Gordon A. Lewis Jr., who also serves on the Friends’ advisory board. The facility is one of the world’s finest for the restoration and conservation of fine art, antiques and frames, as well as for art appraisals, collection management and art-related insurance claims.
Prior to the tour members of the executive and advisory boards for the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery, along with special guests, joined executive director Lisa Marie Browne for a cocktail reception that included an aperitivo of prosecco and antipasti. Guests included Rebecca Dunn, Diana Bell, Cindy Rose, Paul Vattiato, Bruce Crawford, Jose Gonzalez, Bob Silvani, Dr. Lois Abeles, Dr. Bill Stern, Marie Wackenhut, Leoni Pearl and Robin Pearl. Laney Lewis, Gordon’s wife and the director of the Fine Arts Conservancy’s framing division, was unable to attend.
Mr. Lewis began the tour in the facility’s largest room where a large table held a diverse display of current restoration projects that included antique guns, a beautiful wood panel with a gold bas-relief sculpture and the torso of a damaged sculpture that had separated from its pedestal. On one side of the table there was an electronic imaging microscope and television monitor that Mr. Lewis explained was the same set-up used by doctors during surgery. Items are placed on the machine where they can be magnified and then viewed on the TV monitor.
The types of works that were at The Fine Arts Conservancy were not limited just to classical or antique ones. A large Robert Rauschenberg sculpture was there for repair and when the group moved into the smaller studio, Barbara Stella, chief conservator and director of conservation, showed the group the torso of a George Segal sculpture that needed repair.
Also in this smaller studio, Max Berlusconi, paper conservator, showed the group a table that contained bound leather books that he had constructed in a style and manner used during Medieval times. He explained that he’d learned how to do this in school in Italy and that in Italy there’s a market for these type of books.
Mr. Lewis pointed out that many people even use them as travel journals. Knowing how they are constructed helps Mr. Berlusconi when he encounters similar antique books in need of restoration.
Art restoration is technical work and The Fine Arts Conservancy works with state-of-the-art computer and technical equipment and the group was fascinated to learn more about the process behind the conservators’ work – and their patience and diligence. They do a full technical analysis of a restoration prior to beginning and in addition to the electric microscopy machine, they also use advanced equipment for diagnostics. The conservators took the group into a small room used for ultraviolet photography, which can show them exactly when prior restorations were done and how to pinpoint the original work underneath these restorations, which are often not done properly, so The Fine Arts Conservancy will fix these prior attempts.
The tour concluded in the framing studio where everyone gathered around a table that held a 19th century painting that had not yet been restored. On the walls frames were classified by country, “Italy,” “France” and so on. The Italian frames bore great similarities to frames that are seen on Renaissance paintings found at the Uffizi Gallery, including the ones in the recently restored Michelangelo Room, a project that was funded by Friends of the Uffizi Gallery and our sister and founding organization in Italy, Amici degli Uffizi.
Mr. Lewis told about how he acquired one of the frames on the wall, which is one of the few existing frames in the world that pre-date the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He also explained the importance of frames, particularly for art made prior to the 20th century.
The art, antiques and frames that are given to the The Fine Arts Conservancy for repair and restoration are often extremely fragile and rare and the work requires a particular skill set that is found only with highly trained conservators. The facility has worked with many leading museums and cultural organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institute and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.