Saving Granny's Silver

By Amanda Kraus
Reprinted with permission from Museum News

Your neighbor stops by to ask you about a silver tea service he’s inherited from his grandmother. How much is it worth? How should he clean it? After all, you work in a museum; you can tell him whom to contact, right? Like many people, Mr. Jones doesn’t understand that most museums don’t refer the public to specific commercial service providers, or that you don’t have a ready list of experts for him to call.

But finding someone with the right expertise to appraise, conserve, move, light, and store fine art will be much easier from now on, thanks to a new Web site called Art-Care.com. There, the holders of fine art—the public, museums, and businesses alike—can find specialized service providers who hold the highest credentials of their respective fields. “Why should you trust your art and heirlooms to anyone else?” asks the site’s founder, Judith Tartt. A conservator for some 30 years, Tartt says the idea came to her as she helped her mother move from the house she’d lived in for more than 50 years. “I found myself asking questions I’d heard insurance companies and my clients asking for a long time: Is this important? Should it be restored, insured, in storage? How can it be transported? How am I going to find people with the right expertise?”

Here’s how Art-Care works. Fine art service providers become members, which enables them to add a page on the site. It can be simple or sophisticated or anything in between, with before and after pictures, organization profiles, and links to their own Web sites. “You don’t have to know any coding or HTML,” says the site’s designer, Jim Gibson. “The software makes everything the right size and puts it in the right place.”

Visitors to the site find a menu bar with categories of objects--jewelry, painting, textiles, musical instruments, and silver, to name a few. With just a few clicks, they’ll have the names, numbers, and often examples of work by the service providers. Like an online dating Web site, Art-Care make the introduction between the parties and leaves the rest up to them. But unlike the dating sites, Art-Care doesn’t aim to profit from these transactions but supports itself through membership dues.

“Judith has taken what amounts to a public service stance here, even though she wouldn’t say it that way,” says Gibson. “The overworked museum professional was on our mind specifically when we were figuring this out. Their patrons and clients will be grateful for the referral and it doesn’t put the museum in the position of endorsing any one business.” Art-Care likely will help conservators, too, whom Gibson describes as “introspective, scholarly, and not necessarily good at marketing themselves.”

Tartt’s plan to serve the public includes educating people as well. “Part of what we want to do is demystify the work [that’s related to] art,” she says. The Art-Care site includes articles written by conservators; a “walk through” a painting’s restoration; links to such resources as the Smithsonian Center for Research and Education and Chubbcollectors.org, an art insurance company; and advice for those who’d like to restore a specific object. “People need to know what questions they should ask an art conservator,” says Tartt. “How long have you been in business? Are you insured? What kind of expectations should I have? Can I get photo documentation and a written report?

“The more we educate people about art and objects, the more interested they become in art and in … museums…. If they can date the objects they have, they’ll start to make connections with the historical objects.”

The site has approximately 60 members and, once the membership grows, will enter phase two of its virtual constructionóthe addition of a Viewing Room. “We want people to be able to upload images of their objects so that the service providers can see pictures,” says Gibson. Sharing image files on the site means users can bypass all the complications that usually arise when people e-mail large files to each other. In addition, says Gibson, the Viewing Room will allow John Q. Public (or your neighbor, Mr. Jones) to create a Web page for an object or talk to several conservators simultaneously.

“We have control over the objects of our family history,” says Tartt. “The value in terms of sentiment is priceless. I want people to understand why it’s important to keep and take care of things that belonged to their grandmothers.”

Reprinted, with permission, from Museum News, March/April 2004. Copyright 2004, the American Association of Museums. All rights reserved.