In the Studio:
The Conservation of an Ivory Statue
Nearly every prominent collection of decorative art objects includes items made of materials that are now considered rare or are regulated by government agencies. Ivory is perhaps foremost among these materials. It has been favored by craftsmen for centuries. Famous examples include the Venus of Schelklingen, believed to be more than 35,000 years old, and carved from mammoth ivory, and the Lewis Chessmen, dating from the twelfth century and shaped from various types of ivory, currently on view at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum. A less familiar - but quite graceful - example is the beautifully sculpted nineteenth century figurine of a woman above. This delicate work of art, fashioned from elephant ivory, stands only seven inches tall. When it was brought to the studio, it was coated with a layer of dirt and dust and was missing the thumb and a sleeve ruffle on its proper right arm. It also had a small crack in the clavicle area on the proper right side just below the braid.
Sources and Physical Properties of Ivory
Ivory is derived from the teeth and tusks of various large mammals, including elephants, walruses, sperm whales, narwhals and boars. These teeth and tusks are comprised of layers, much like human teeth. The outside layer is enamel, backed by a substance called cementum, then comes the dentine from which ivory is made and finally, the pulp. The dentine served as an excellent material for carving because of its fine, dense texture and beautiful sheen (walrus ivory contains a secondary dentine that is coarser, more friable and unevenly colored). When first carved, ivory is a translucent white. It gradually becomes more opaque over time and, if stored away from light, will tend to yellow. The dentine contains microcanals or "dentinal tubules", which contribute to ivory being susceptible to fluctuations in humidity, making it expand and contract very much like wood. Lack of humidity is what caused the crack on our figure. On the other hand, excess humidity can also have an effect; when ivory is subject to extremely wet conditions, its mineral contents sometimes leach away, while surrounding minerals are selectively absorbed, giving a blotchy, uneven surface color.
The initial step was to determine whether the various joints – this statue is composed of numerous small pieces fitted together - or the crack in the figure’s clavicle area - were stable. Finding no issues with the joints, and determining that the crack was merely a hairline and very shallow, we proceeded to clean the statue’s surface. For this we used small swabs, barely moistened and dipped in extremely fine chalk. A second pass with plain swabs removed any remaining residue and left a beautiful surface luster. Once cleaning was complete, we began to carve replacements for the missing thumb and ruffle. Since ivory is tightly regulated (more on that below), our initial thought was to replicate the missing pieces with either a tagua nut (a seed sustainably harvested from a rainforest tree) or some kind of synthetic resin. None of our assays were satisfactory; the available materials were an incorrect shade of white or too soft to hold the level of detail necessary for a convincing replication of the missing elements. At that point we decided to purchase a very small piece of "pre-Convention" ivory. Using tools very similar to those likely to have been used in the original carving, such as chisels, gouges, knives and jewelers files, we proceeded with the replacement carvings. Since our source ivory had been kept in a drawer, it was considerably yellower than the statue. To remedy this, we exposed the newly-carved pieces to ultraviolet light, which steadily lightened their appearance. The final task was to attach the new elements to the statue. Here we faced two divergent concerns: the repairs had to be completely stable, but they also had to be completely reversible. We achieved both ends by coating the attachment points on the original surfaces with a barrier of soluble acrylic resin and then adhering both elements with a stable epoxy resin. The repairs are only barely visible to the naked eye, but a future conservator will be able to identify them readily and remove them if necessary without damaging the original object.
A Conservator's Ethic
The process of conservation frequently introduces a number of contradictions which challenge conservators. In this case, one of the contradictions was the need to use a highly controlled material to preserve the aesthetic integrity of an art object. The two common meanings of conservation – ecological and artisanal - were poised in sharp contradistinction. Ivory - and the elephants that produce it -- have enjoyed some protection under U.S. and international law since the Lacey Act of 1900. In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned altogether trade in wild animals and plants whose survival is threatened. For our purposes, we were able to purchase ivory obtained before CITES was enacted. This is sourced from well-documented antique tusks within the United States. The purveyor of our "pre-Convention" ivory also supplies the Smithsonian Institution and Colonial Williamsburg. Thus, we were able to sustain the contradictions of the conservation process and remain responsible stewards of both our cultural and environmental heritage.
Additional information on CITES and other laws governing the purchase or shipment of protected species materials can be found on the following websites:
Some excellent articles on the Metropolitan Museum’s "The Game of Kings – Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis" exhibition and ivory carving techniques can be found on the exhibition blog (you may need to copy and paste this url into your browser) at:
Panelist and Guest Lecturer: We are committed to sharing our knowledge of conservation with allied professionals and interested individuals. We regularly present to professional organizations, class groups and private audiences. To find out more about our upcoming presentations – or to invite us to speak to your group – email firstname.lastname@example.org
New, Expanded Studio: We are now well settled in our new studio in Long Island City’s Standard Motor Products Building. You are welcome to visit; it’s just a 10 minute ride on the R train from midtown. While here, you may catch a glimpse of one of Jim Henson’s Muppets (the Jim Henson Foundation is just down the hall). You might also enjoy seeing the City’s largest green rooftop, The Brooklyn Grange. Our full contact information appears below:
Period Furniture Conservation, LLC
3718 Northern Blvd Ste 407
Long Island City, NY 11101
telephone 212 255 7426
fax 212 208 4520
Furniture Conservator Yuri Yanchyshyn has worked with wooden objects for over 30 years, from a cabinet-maker’s shop to the laboratories of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Private collectors, museums, architects and designers have all entrusted precious items from the 14th through the 20th centuries to Yuri’s care, and institutions such as Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center invite him to lecture. Yuri holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the California Institute of the Arts and received advanced training from the Amsterdam Academy for Restoration and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.
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