In the Studio:
It is very rare to discover decorative works of art over 250 years old that have not passed through the hands of a restorer. Revolutions, wars, change of ownership or location all take their toll, and occasionally not to a work’s benefit. Such was the case recently when a Longcase Regulater clock by Balthazar Lieutaud from mid 18th century France arrived in our studio. Rather than addressing typical concerns, such as missing structural elements, veneers or a degraded coating, our client pointed to the wings of “Father Time," a gilt bronze mount on the top of the hood of the clock. We immediately noticed that unlike the rest of the clock mounts, the attached wings were not gilded — they were of tarnished brass. Upon closer inspection, we also noticed that they were very crudely carved, certainly not in keeping with the elegant and detailed style of the carving of the figure. The client then asked Could you carve and gild new wings to match the rest of the mounts? This question, combined with the much anticipated exhibition at The Frick Collection "Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court" (November 16, 2016 to February 19, 2017), led us to reflect on the historic techniques of gilt bronze fabrication and a conservator’s approach to the restoration process.
An Art Form Develops
The craft of forming, casting and gilding metals can be traced back to the metallurgy of antiquity. Bronze, a mixture of copper and tin, initially appears around 3000 BC in the Near and Far East, in the form of utilitarian objects such as tools, vessels and weapons. Gold objects, on the other hand, have been found in archeological sites in Bulgaria, dating back to about 4500 BC. Over time, the desire to embellish bronze objects led to the marrying of these base and precious metals. In 18th century France, this process reached its zenith and became known as bronze doré. We refer to it as gilt bronze, ormolu or fire gilding. Typically, the process would begin with a sculptor carving an object, such as the wings above, in wax, clay or wood. A wax model of the wings would then be created and used for cire perdue, or the lost-wax process. This meant that the wax model was covered with plaster or clay and then heated until it was burned off, leaving an empty void. This was accomplished by fondeurs-ciseleurs, who would then fill the empty space with molten bronze. Upon cooling, they would clean up the metal, performing reparure. Afterward, steel tools would be used to punch or chase the bronze into its final surface, such as refining the textures of the individual feathers of the wings. Next, ciseleurs-doreurs would brush on a liquid mixture of gold and mercury amalgam onto the bronze. When heated over an open fire the mercury would evaporate, and after many repetitions, a thick layer of gold would be left. Lastly, since it would be visually matte, burnishing would be required to heighten the visual effect. Such complex procedures would require 18th century guild members to have a very clear understanding of their materials and their working techniques. As conservators, we educate ourselves on their fabrication techniques, so that we can convincingly duplicate their results, if necessary.
In answering our client, we felt the wings could be duplicated, but with an important caveat: We did not want to "create" a new set of wings based solely on our imagination. Luckily, a similar Lieutaud clock was discovered in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, with an identical Father Time mount, whose wings were original. After that, our procedures were straightforward. Upon receipt of detailed photographs, staff conservator Cathy Silverman carved wings out of wax to match the photos. They were larger, more detailed and more graceful than the brass wings. However, before they were sent out for casting, we took advantage of an innovation that is changing our field. The wax wings were digitally scanned into a file, so that duplicates could be easily 3-D printed if the carvings were accidentally damaged by the caster. Although another difference was that silicone casting material was used to make a mold of the wings at the foundry, the new castings themselves were made of bronze, like the original mounts. Lastly, the cast wings were electroplated with 24-karat gold leaf rather than mercury gilt, as they would have been in the 18c. Mercury gilding is no longer employed due to health and environmental hazards. A final toning with pigmented wax assured that the results very closely match the original mounts, as seen on the photo on the above left.
A Conservator’s Approach
One of the paradoxes of conservation is that a conservator’s work should be distinguishable from the original object, out of respect for the "integrity of the object", while at the same time remaining visually convincing to the viewer. In the case of the Lieutaud clock, a poorly executed previous restoration severely detracted from its appearance. And yet, after our treatment, if one were to rely only on visual appearance in comparing the clock’s mounts, how would one be able to distinguish the original castings from our restoration work? And what if one did not have the treatment photographs or the treatment report? In fact, isn’t that how fakes are created?
Part of the answer lies in the sophisticated scientific analysis that has increasingly been applied to works of art over the last number of decades. Thus, a great benefit of the Pierre Gouthière exhibit at the Frick Collection has been the discovery of the precise content of the metal alloys used to create his mounts, thereby permitting originals to be reliably differentiated from restorations or possible fakes.
Should your travels take you to the West Coast, the Longcase Regulater clock by Balthazar Lieutaud is also on exhibition, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
We’re moving: Period Furniture Conservation is excited to announce that we will be moving this month to newly developed conservation spaces at Mana Contemporary, located at 888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ. In doing so, we look forward to better serving our diverse clientele. Please come and visit us!
Instructor: Yuri Yanchyshyn taught a class on “An Introduction to the Conservation of Furniture and the Decorative Arts,” for the Comprehensive Appraisal Studies Program of the Appraisers Association of American on July 26, 2016. Twenty-four enthusiastic students attended, and further information on the program can be found at
Fellowships and Internships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Yuri Yanchyshyn is dedicated to nurturing aspiring young conservators, both with employment and in their further careers.
Cathy Silverman, former Assistant Furniture Conservator at Period Furniture Conservation from 2014–2015, received a Conservation and Research Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Objects Conservation Department. She is the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, and will be researching American and English japanned furniture. Details about her fellowship can be found at
While employed at my firm as a Furniture Conservation Technician in 2011, Lisa Ackerman decided she had found her calling and was later accepted to the master’s degree art conservation program at Buffalo State, The State University of New York. Starting this autumn she is completing her 3rd year internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Objects Conservation Department, working on an Algerian stringed musical instrument, a Chinese Coromandel lacquer screen, and is part of the conservation team that is reworking the British Galleries. She is also back at my firm as a part-time Graduate Intern in Furniture Conservation.
New Service Update: Our new service, anoxic fumigation, is growing in interest. Since its beginning in February, we have treated period furniture and frames, period and contemporary paintings, historic textiles and rugs, historic archives and contemporary art objects, for private clients and institutions. Please consider us should you require this unique service. Further information can be found at
Furniture Conservator Yuri Yanchyshyn has worked with wooden objects for over 30 years, from a cabinetmakers shop to the laboratories of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Private collectors, museums, architects, designers and other conservators 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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