worth its weight in gold
One potential auction bidder spoke confidingly to the other, “You know, it’s been restored.” My heart listened intently for a reply. “Yes, but what a beautiful job.”
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
There’s always that one job that was so satisfying you fondly remember every detail years later. For me, that job was restoring this gilded mirror in the collection of visionary museum curator, Berry B. Tracy. It was early in the 1980’s, and I’d recently returned from England and set up shop when Berry arrived at my doorstep with a mirror to bring “back from the dead.”
- Research “Cornucopia” Images in Art History
- Recover Remains of the Original 19th Century Mirror
- Carve + Gild Missing Areas
- Assemble + Write Treatment Report
- Transport to Owner
Covered with dark radiator paint and dirt and with a flamboyant eagle flying atop the carnage, the mirror had split wood seams and cracked gesso with broken pieces of carved wood nailed randomly across its surface. It was such a mess, it was hard to know how it should look after treatment. Twin cornucopias curving up to a frieze across the top were all I could make out of the original form.
Sam Spade would have been proud of my detective work on this job. The eagle was cast in composition and nailed to the back of the frame. That was the first piece easily discarded. Eventually, all of the original carved wood was identified and cleaned. Piecing things back together was harder. But one fruit stem fragment provided me with the clue I needed to reassemble the fruits and vegetables spilling out of the cornucopias. Once I had that exciting AHA! moment, I was able to restore the mirror with confidence.
Visual contrast between mat and burnished gold leaf pleases the eye like musical harmony pleases the ear. At one time the burnished gilding had been sanded off, but traces remained to show me the maker’s intent. On this mirror, the cornucopias have spiraling ribs of alternating burnished and mat 23 karat gold leaf.
Fragments of original material indicated what was burnished and what was mat. Replacement fruit was easy to carve, gesso and gold leaf. Assembled with the original mirror, this 19th century American master work was ready to grace Berry’s home. As fate and his untimely death would have it, the mirror was soon sold at his estate auction conducted by Sotheby’s in New York City. Sitting in the audience that afternoon, I overheard two attendees speaking about the mirror as it rotated into view on the stage. One potential bidder spoke confidingly to the other, “You know, it’s been restored.” I listened intently for the reply. “Yes, but what a beautiful job.” In all the years since, I have never had a better compliment about my art conservation work than this unexpected one.