Barbis Fine Art Conservation: Disaster Recovery

What to do if your artwork has been in a fire or flood

Time is the enemy when it comes to reducing the damage done to your artwork by a fire or flood. However, never enter an area or building unless you know it is safe. In the case of a fire, we recommend getting approval from your local fire chief before going into any damaged building. In areas of major flooding, your local police department should have information on when you can return.

As soon as possible after a fire or flood, one of the first phone calls you should make is to a local art conservator who can provide you with advice and emergency services. They will be able to give you specific guidance tailored to your situation that will help save as much of your art collection as possible. In addition, they can also help you to move your artwork, photographs and other important documents to a safe location where no further damage can take place. Once the artwork is secure, the conservator will then work with you and your insurance company to come up with a plan to clean and restore your collection.

Any works of art or books that survive a fire or flood relatively intact are candidates for restoration. Do not throw anything out until a conservator has looked at it—you may be surprised at how much of your collection can be saved. It is also important to know that having someone other than a qualified conservator try to fix or clean your artwork often results in even more damage being done. In our experience, undoing the damage done by well-meaning cleaning services or frame shops is more difficult and expensive to fix than the original problem.

If there is no conservator immediately available to provide you with help and advice, there are still a few things you can do on your own to minimize damage. In many disaster situations, there is the possibility that your artwork may have been exposed to water in one form or another. This is true for fires as well as for floods because the water used to put a fire out turns into a superheated steam that penetrates just about everything in the entire building. Once wet or damp, your artwork becomes a perfect breeding ground for mold. This is even more of a problem for prints and photographs that are sealed in frames behind glass.

If you suspect that your prints, paintings or books are even slightly damp, there are two possible courses of action you can take. One option is to let them dry in safe area where the humidity is preferably lower than 60% and the temperature is below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A second option is to find a local business that uses large walk-in refrigeration units and ask if you can store your wet artwork there for a few days or even a few weeks. This will stop or slow any mold growth and give you more time to locate an art conservator who provides emergency restoration services.

If you decide to dry out the artwork, here are a few additional precautions you will need to take.

For those of us who live in cold climates, frozen pipes are also a source of water damage—such as when the furnace stops working while you were away on vacation. Although it is tempting to get the heat back on as soon as possible, we recommend first removing any damaged art in its frozen condition and having a conservator either freeze dry, or thaw and dry it under controlled conditions. We also recommend moving all household furnishings to a safe area outside of the flood zone. This will prevent further damage from mold or the melting ice-water that inevitably finds its way through floors, walls and ceilings and onto your books, art and furniture.

For more information, click here to go to the American Institute for Conservation's Disaster Response and Recovery webpage.

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