Mr. Fixit

A museum conservator could go nuts piecing together the remnants of ancient and modern civilizations.

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The master, piecing together another masterpiece. - Walter  Novak
The master, piecing together another masterpiece.
As far as mind-numbing tasks go, sorting through 20 tons of broken pottery is way up there. Art conservator Larry Sisson found that out when he was on pottery shard duty at Mount Pistachio, an ancient Roman trash heap where philosophers and plebeians tossed their broken crockery.

After about five tons, the relics of a lost civilization started to look about as scintillating as a World's Greatest Mom mug from 1982. After about 10, Sisson passed over the threshold of boredom into a professional realm where working on something wasn't akin to worshiping it.

"It's not necessarily a good thing to say, "Oh my God, I'm working on a $14 million painting,'" he observes.

A good conservator works on everything from Rembrandts to knickknacks, says Sisson, and though the knickknacks might look like garage-sale rejects, they could be rare jewels in the context of a museum show. He chooses an engaging little ceramic horse from his work shelf, cradling it in his palm.

"For instance, these little casts are probably a dime a dozen," he says. "They're the kind of things you find in antique shops along the highway. You don't want to present this to a conservator as "Oh, God, you don't want to fix that, it's not worth it.' It's the other side of the same coin. It's very much a question of "How do I do the best job with the situation I'm given?'"

The little blue horse is by Viktor Schreckengost, a man anonymously revered by a generation of kids popping wheelies in their front yards rather than hushed crowds at the Louvre. The designer of the first fire engine pedal cars and the first mass-marketed banana-seat bikes, Schreckengost, now 93, founded the Industrial Design school at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the 1930s.

Melting crayons to use as glaze when he couldn't afford paint, Schreckengost is also an accomplished ceramicist. Right now, Sisson, who works at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is in the final stages of repairing about 20 of those ceramics for a retrospective next winter. They include "Leda and the Swan" -- a dinner plate Schreckengost loaned intact to an out-of-town gallery, only to have it returned in three carefully wrapped pieces -- and "Air," a Viennese-style wall sconce that the family kitten knocked over on a fiendish run to the kitchen.

Schreckengost's wife, Jean, well remembers the day that the piece, one of her husband's favorites, shattered into about a zillion pieces.

"After I got my emotions under control, I care-ful-ly picked them up and got them into a box," she recalls. She stored the remains with faint hope they'd be more than dust again. The cost for professional restoration was prohibitive. They'd once restored an extra-comfortable Sears lawn chair that Viktor designed, and it cost them 50 times the original price of the chair. But that was a special case, because the original mold for the chair had been perfected with the help of 428 different butts -- those of workers at the Murray Co. factory, who agreed to sit on a barrel with clay on top in exchange for a free cup of coffee. Viktor then cast the seat from the clay mold.

This time, though, the restoration is on the museum's tab, with Sisson sorting and counting the pieces, then arranging them in jigsaw-puzzle fashion. Once he's mapped out a plan, he puts things back together with highly specialized adhesives, including a vinyl spackling compound fresh off the shelf of your local Bucky's hardware store.

"Air" took Sisson a few days to reassemble, not to perfection, but to pretty-goodness, with its tiny break lines almost invisible and only a few gaps where remnants had crumbled to sand-grain size and were tucked in an envelope "because somebody may come back in 50, 60 years and want to repair it, and will look at those pieces and may actually find homes for them," says Sisson.

When it comes to cheap adhesive, Sisson swears by a failed car lacquer that breaks down at about 100 degrees. For an overheated Ford Mustang in August, that's bad, but it might work wonders for flowery German porcelain that will be around for centuries and hence need a periodic overhaul.

"None of these repairs are ever thought of as being forever," Sisson says, explaining that all glue, no matter how fancy, has a relatively short life. "The idea is that they be reversible -- that you can take them apart without too much trouble and then do them again."

"Air" wasn't the most involved piece Sisson worked on in a career spent traveling from Native American refuse sites in Santa Fe, where he dealt with buckskin and bead work, to piecing burial pithoi -- mammoth jars with the corpses of dead servants sometimes stuffed inside -- at a Bronze Age site in Crete.

With the pithoi, the jigsaw-puzzle method went three-dimensional, with Sisson excruciatingly Scotch-taping together the immense vessels first, sometimes two or three times, because if one piece was out of place, the whole pot was off. He'd document what went where, then take the whole thing apart again and reaffix it with adhesive.

"Most of my experience has been in archaeological conservation, so you get lots of pots that are quite badly damaged," he explains. "If you could imagine a few thousand years of broken parts all in one large pile and then trying to put them back together, it's a lot more difficult than having a piece that the cat knocked over, and the artist went with the broom and swept everything up.

"The first time I was given a piece that was whole was a bit of a shock for me. One, because I didn't really know what needed to be done to it, because it looked like it was in great condition. Two, when you're dealing with something perfect, the last thing you want to do is make it imperfect."

Earlier conservators haven't been so careful. One of Schreckengost's plates, a deco design called "Neptune," broken while on loan to a gallery, came in looking like it had been mended in the dark by a nursery school class let loose on a tube of model glue, the edges uneven and the cracks all brown and crusty from a stubborn epoxy that neither aged well nor came apart easily.

"When something is repaired like that, it doesn't tend to be reversible, but there are chemicals that soften them," Sisson says of the glue-encrusted plate shards. "So it was a bit of work to get them apart, but they came apart. Then you had to clean the [edges] to get all the gook out of them, and rejoin them."

An easygoing guy with impeccable manners, Sisson works in a climate-controlled room that's surrounded by more back hallways and metal doors than an episode of Get Smart. A nearby table is covered with decorative Asian mirrors dating back to 500 B.C. Masterpiece paintings that are decidedly not Kmart reproductions from Grandpa's trailer languish on easels, removed from their frames.

Another far-off room is devoted to the X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer, a specialized and expensive piece of equipment that's spoken of in reverent tones. Its job is even sort of sexy -- it excites the metal alloys in an artwork, triggering a reading of its elements, which helps conservators date the piece. Right now, it's being used to measure the amounts of tin and lead in the Asian mirrors -- the more tin, the later the piece was made. It can also tell whether a piece corroded with age, or last week with the help of a vial of acid.

Besides repairs, keeping an eye out for fakes is integral to Sisson's job as a conservator. The museum hasn't found any John Does masquerading as Van Goghs lately, but a few of the Asian mirrors were dated centuries earlier than their actual age. In the most secret of the secret rooms in the museum's conservation wing hangs a fake Grünewald conservators exposed a few years ago, treated more as a tribute to crack analyzing skills than an embarrassment to the museum.

"The value of [fakes] that's traded internationally is on a scale equal to -- and in some years even greater than -- drugs," Sisson says, a little gleam in his eye. He didn't actually get to chase down art thieves in black catsuits tiptoeing through the dark halls, but he did learn that fact at a recent conference that dealt with the illegal trade in antiquities. "So it's huge amounts of money, and if you're able to smuggle them out, you stand to turn a great profit."

For a conservator, after a long day of filling cracks and checking for 18th-century Prussian blue paint in 12th-century paintings, there's no better way of slumming than going home and turning on the Antiques Road Show.

"That's my exercise show," says Sisson, who pedals his stationary bike to the perils and payoffs of people who bring in Napoleon's coffee service and velvet paintings of the Holy Grail. He almost fell off his bike when they demonstrated how to identify bronze by whacking it with a blunt instrument.

"If you're gonna knock it, knock it on the bottom of it, not on the head!" he implores. "Think where you're gonna knock things.

"I have an interest in people taking care of their things. That's why I like what I do, and it would be interesting if they actually put a little more time into how those kinds of issues are an important part of collecting. As it comes across now, the show is about how much things are worth."

To put things in perspective, perhaps the PBS wheeler-dealers could put Mount Pistachio on their itinerary.

Laura Putre can be reached at [email protected].

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