Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! The Conservation of Two Lithographs from New Orleans

The Conservation Center recently had the privilege of conserving two lithographs that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina and had been sitting in storage for many years. Our client inherited A Midnight Race on the Mississippi by Currier & Ives and J.J. Audubon’s Purple Martin (Calabash) from their parents in New Orleans. The pieces had been living in a second-floor storage unit when Hurricane Katrina blew through and ripped the roof off the facility, causing water to seep into the unit.

A Midnight Race has a rich history in which our client cannot remember a time when it was not a part of their family’s household. It was bought by their parents from Dr. Isaac Cline, who coincidently is one of the first meteorologist to offer dependable weather predictions and is predominately known for his association with the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. Purple Martin was bought as a gift for our client’s father given his love of birds and their migratory roost in New Orleans in summer months. When our client brought the pieces out of their watery storage in New Orleans, yet another unfortunate water instance befell them at their new storage location in Chicago.

When the pieces were first brought to The Center for examination, they both exhibited moderate surface soil throughout, selective inactive mold located primarily along the margins and corners, and water stains on the verso. A Midnight Race appeared to be in slightly worse condition than Purple Martin given the difference in paper quality used to produce the lithograph.  A Midnight Race was executed on paper with heavy wood pulp content, which tends to exacerbate the age of the sheet over time. As such, the sheet exhibited overall severe darkening, age related discoloration, and was embrittled due to the acidic content. Except for the hand colored yellow and orange pigments, all pigments were stable for acidic reduction.  There were multiple pressure sensitive tapes on the verso edges from previous tear repairs, along with multiple edge tears throughout. The frame had minor discoloration from being exposed to liquid, and exhibited mold growth on the verso. Purple Martin exhibited mild mold stains and moderate distortion throughout.  There were selective water and mold stains on the verso of the sheet. The mat used in framing the piece was non-archival, producing selective acidic mat burns around the margins. Unfortunately, due to the nature and severity of the damage, the frame and French mat was considered a loss.

To conserve A Midnight Race, our Paper Conservator began by mechanically removing the pressure sensitive tapes. The sheet was then surface cleaned on the recto and verso. To reduce the first stage of acid content and to test the stability of the overall sheet, the piece then underwent blotter washing before being placed in a water bath. The sheet went through several, separately timed baths to further reduce acidic content and discoloration. The sheet was introduced to a light bleaching to aid in further reduction of stains. The overall sheet was then rinsed in multiple baths at timed intervals. All tears were reinforced on the verso with the appropriate weight mending paper and wheat starch paste. The sheet did not need to be reinforced with any additional lining, as it had regained some integrity within the paper fibers during the reduction process of acid content. The treatment was finalized by drying the sheet between blotters. The results proved satisfactory, as the original tone of the sheet appeared to have been regained without compromising any of the hand colored pigments that are indicative to Currier & Ives prints. To aid in stabilization and further age-related discoloration, the print was reinstalled into the existing frame to conservation standards. The frame was also treated for mold growth and was minimally solvent cleaned. The miters were stabilized and filled with pigmented wax. The scratches and abrasions were toned to emulate the surrounding surface.

Purple Martin proved to be a little more difficult to treat given the time sensitivity of the watercolor media. Overall, the mold related staining was reduced through blotter washing and the sheet was stabilized. It retained minor evidence of water staining post-treatment. Even though the original frame was considered a loss, The Center provided a stunning replacement option, sympathetic to the original. Our Custom Framing Department was even able to mimic the delicate French line margin detail on the engaged replacement mat.

Now the pieces live safely back with our client, prominently on display, conserved for future generations to enjoy.