Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Arty-fact: Of hidden paintings and lost heirlooms

An artwork begins to deteriorate the moment it is completed. A lot can be done to preserve and prolong its life, but there are situations that damage the work nevertheless. Smoke patches and burns due to fire, cracks and tear due to the use of non-archival materials, or normal wear-and-tear. In such situations, a professional restorer is needed to salvage the work.

Art restorer, Priya Khanna has been responsible for salvaging significant works for museums and collectors across the country.

Two decades ago, when Khanna developed an interest in the field, there were virtually no opportunities to enrol in a professional course on the subject in India. So she decided to pursue a course in the UK.

“The restoration process is closer to being a science than it is art," she says. The process of restoring an artwork is perhaps as fascinating as making it. Often, certain paintings carry unseen layers, which can only be exposed upon restoration.

Khanna was once requested by a royal family from central India to help restore an old portrait of their grandparents. “The painting had a thick layer of varnish, something that was used then to protect the work. But it made the work translucent and pale," she recalls.

When the dust and aged varnish layer was removed, the original painting emerged. The image was sharp and clear, with all the details visible. The portrait was of the couple in the palace, wearing royal clothes, jewels and crowns. While the exact date of its creation was unknown, it was at least more than 70 years old.

Khanna’s studio could not disclose whom the painting belonged to, but when her clients visited the studio to take it back, their initial reaction was that of amazement and gratitude. Soon, however, silence descended. “There was this tension-filled uneasiness when the woman sternly asked her husband about the whereabouts of the jewellery that his grandmother was adorning. I controlled my laughter and excused myself from the room," she says.

It was both funny and strange: how quickly the joy of a restored work changed to angst about the precious jewels and the inheritance.

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