How is it that for all these years that I have been a painting conservator—changing countries and travelling around, doing my work—the most common question people have always asked me has been ‘you must be able to do good fakes then?’ 

The question generally comes with a wink—I am still debating whether this means ‘only joking!’ or ‘we’re friends, we won’t give you away!’

This has prompted me to think about the fascination people have for fake artworks—arguably sometimes more than they have for the real piece—and where conservation fits into the real/fake discussion. I’ll set aside the moral aspect of the argument, on which the reader can decide according to their personal values. But I will explore the idea that creating something identical to an original artwork can have legitimacy, unrelated to illicit financial gain. Only in our case it is not called a fake; conservators call it a replica.

Conservators do in-depth research into the techniques of artists, their working processes and how the materials they have used travel through time. But contrary to common belief, this is not so they can use exactly the same materials for their conservation work. Quite the opposite, in fact; conservation deontology dictates that the conservator’s work should be discernable from the original with simple technological means—for example, through examination under ultraviolet (UV) light. 

However, a good part of a painting conservator’s time is spent trying to make their work invisible to the naked eye, using materials that look the same as the originals but do not have the same chemical composition. The repair materials are also supposed to last reasonably long without changing visually. So, for example, the resin-based colours used to fill losses in oil paintings will look perfect in normal light but will have a distinctly different hue than the original oil paint under UV light. 

What is a replica, then, and what are they used for in conservation? There are many reasons why people in charge of an artwork’s care would want to reproduce it. One is that the act of making things helps tremendously to understand how they are constructed and held together. Replicas also help us understand why the surface of a work looks like it does. Some surface aspects are characteristic of certain tools, mediums, materials, or even hand gestures used to apply these materials to a support. Palette knives used with raw oil paint produce a surface very different from what is obtained when using oil mixed with a medium, and applied with flat brushes. The way an artist holds the brush can even lead to the creation of many different textures. More complex techniques, such as punched gold leaf, raised details, or the inclusion of sand, threads, and other materials, produce intricate surfaces that need to be thoroughly understood by conservators before they attempt to treat it. 

Contemporary works of art offer a vast field of investigation, because they include an incredible array of materials, quite often not originally intended for making art. Treatments that have proven effective on works of art made in the classical fashion may be entirely inappropriate for new and unusual painting materials—plastics, tar, and chocolate come to mind, among hundreds.

When confronted with the unknown, conservators may try to replicate the technique of the artist, using the same materials and layering them in the same manner. These surfaces reconstructions can be the perfect subject for testing different methods of treatment. For example, the effectiveness and visual impact of paint consolidants can be tested on models replicating the original flaking surface of an artwork, artificially aged and damaged in a similar manner to the original. Of course in this case there is no need to reproduce the whole artwork; only selected parts will be replicated. 

However, it may be necessary to make a full-scale replica—say, when researching the best way to hang, support or store it. Various systems of display can be researched and evaluated using the replica without risking damaging the original work of art. 

Conservators have strategies to prevent their replicas from one day being mistaken for original artworks and thereby becoming fakes—e.g. by stamping ‘copy’ and the date of fabrication somewhere on the work. In contemporary art, these replicas are often made with the artist’s advice and used to get the artist’s feedback on the result or appearance of a conservation treatment. The artist’s participation and trust is essential and all steps are taken to protect their work and legacy.

Another wide field for the use of replicas in art is when it is necessary to protect or to replace works that are either at risk of disappearance (prehistoric painted caves, fragile monuments), lost in traumatic events (the Bamyan Buddhas) or whose materials have decayed to the extent that the work can no longer be displayed according to the artist’s wishes. This latter scenario is often the case with many contemporary artworks utilising alimentary products, short–lived plastics, or electrical or technological elements that only function for a time. 

Is a replica an acceptable way of displaying an artwork otherwise lost? Is an artwork whose parts have been replaced still authentic? Can we appreciate a replica of a lost artwork as much as the original? Where lies the feeling? All these questions are open and depend on context. When possible, the artist is consulted in order to ascertain what is the essential quality of the artwork and the most important aspect to be preserved: for example, if transparency or flexibility is integral to the work’s significance, conservators might be authorized by the artist to replace parts or the totality of an artwork that has become opaque or brittle with time, and may possibly be authorized to do so in the future, beyond the artist’s lifetime. 

Then even wider doors are opened: if we are replacing parts or the totality of an artwork because of material defects, should we use the same material—knowing it will decay identically? And what if this material becomes unavailable? There are cases where the physical character of a certain material is considered essential (wood, bronze, silk…), and therefore it is the conservator’s responsibility to source a material that feels or looks as close as possible to the original one. In some other cases the material itself is not as important as one of its qualities (shiny, hard, transparent, flapping…) and efforts are made to source a material that best fits these criteria. 

There are nearly as many cases as there are artworks, and this is arguably what makes conservation such interesting work. Indeed it seems that replication is one way among many conservators have of exploring the world of materiality and its significance for creators and viewers alike.

Sabine Cotte is a conservator of paintings.

Next: Fake stump, real tree by Savina Hopkins

Would you like to download this as a cute little A5 booklet? It's FREE! Go to our shop to download. Materiality: FAKE, Part VII.