Ethics and Standards in the Conservation of Ephemera

Susan Cicconi and William Sarill
Presented: 15th annual Art Conservation training Program Conference
Harvard University Art Museum April 28-29, 1989

This is the first of what I hope will be many talks on the subject of ethical concerns in the conservation of ephemera. My training as a paper conservator originated in Paris where I studied with Diane O'Neal back in the summer of 1980. Diane, a reknown paper conservator and student at NYU, had established a pre-eminent reputation paper conservation in Paris at that time. I learned the basic traditional approach to paper conservation as her apprentice for nearly two years. During this time we worked on numerous projects for the Museum of Modern Art in Paris of which the most exciting were 36 original works on paper by Pabio Picasso which we conserved for a centennial retrospective in Munich, 1981. Since this illustrious beginning, time and experience have brought me from Picasso to Superman, or more generally speaking, from the eternal to the ephemeral. Since July of 1986, I have owned and solely operated The Restoration Lab a conservation studio bought from my preceding mentor and employer, William Sarill.

The World Book dictionary defines ephemera as "a person or thing that has a transitory existence." Generally speaking, as a paper conservator in private practice, my work as a conservator of ephemera encompasses those paper collectables particularly of the 20th Century which are not bound volumes or objects of fine art but are objects which do have a collectable nature and therefore a value attached to them. Included are such popularly issued materials as sheet music, posters, magazines, postcards, comic books, sports cards and original comic art. This enormous variety of materials encompasses an equally wide range of media - in particular, compositions of inks, sizes and fiber furnish tended to vary from one publisher to another, and often changed abruptly as economic factors compelled publishers to use less expensive materials.

Although I have restored most forms of paper collectables, The Restoration Lab has built its reputation mainly with comic books. They entail at least 90% of my business and it is upon them I would like to focus since the ethical concerns and problems are particularly well-defined. For example, a major concern under the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice is the "principle of reversibility." I would estimate that at least one-half of all comics received by me have been worked upon by some previous owner. In some cases, the extent to which these books have been treated has rendered the repairs irreversible. Often these repairs were a well-intentioned but naive attempt by a child to fix rips and tears with various glues and mending tapes. In other cases, the repairs may be neither well-intentioned or naive, such as a dealer's attempt to touch-up a hairline crease of a comic book cover with a matching color felt tip pen. I have often observed the consequences of such unthinking actions - the felt-tip marker ink may bleed through the paper and, because of its essential irreversibility, may create a far worse situation than was posed by the original crease. Among the more extreme attempts at unskilled restoration, I have also witnessed the results of using brown paper bags as mending papers, irreversible "super glues" as adhesives, spray-can acrylic fixatives for resizing, and perhaps most destructive of all, the use of household bleaches for whitening covers and interior pages. Most if not all of these methods have permanently damaged valuable paper collectables. Before addressing the issues of public awareness which contribute to these serious problems, I would first like to elaborate on the conservation of ephemera in the first place.

Why bother restoring a comic book? What can possibly be its significance worthy of so much thought and attention? Ephemera, by the very definition of the word, was meant to be disposable. We Know comics as such. The vast majority of these books were printed on highly acidic newsprint, the cheapest grade of paper available, and for the most part were not intended to be permanently preserved; like the morning paper, they were intended to be read once or twice and then thrown away. It is not the job of the conservator to be a cultural historian, and there is no telling how future generations will ultimately assess the place of comic books in American social and cultural history. Nevertheless, with respect to their collectable value and potential future significance, it is my job as conservator to make comic books and other ephemera available for those future generations to assess.

Without getting too detailed, I would like to mention a few significant esthetic factors in support of comic art. We can witness a cross-fertilization or exchange of ideas between popular graphics and fine arts. For example, the Smithsonian Collection of comic art contains reproductions of original strips from the heyday of comic art. Among the strips represented are Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo" with its strong Art Nouveau flavor, and George Herriman's "Crazy Kat" with its cubist and surrealist overtones. More recently the Pop Art movement of the early sixties drew much of its inspiration from comics. The work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are two prominent examples. Likewise, comic books have always presented a mirror of popular themes of American culture. They have reflected changing attitudes towards patriotism, crime, sexuality, race, social and economic issues - all of which are intrinsic to our American heritage. Through microfiche, attempts have been made to preserve these earlier comics on film, yet microfiche cannot capture the sheer physical experience of holding of of these rare books and turning the pages in full living color. It is for these reasons that I have dedicated my professional career to the conservation of ephemera in general, and comic books in particular.

If we were to cite a Golden Age comic's value, we need only to choose the most popular of American heroes, "Superman." In 1939, the first issue of this book was prices at 10 cents. Fifty years later a copy in excellent condition is valued at $24,000. This is only one example out of hundreds of prominent issues from the Golden Age period of comics. It is inevitable that with prices as high as these for collectibles, there will always be someone out there trying to restore them. We must also remember that there are multiple copies of each issue in existence - in some cases, thousands of copies, all in varying conditions. Inasmuch as the value of a comic book depends critically upon its condition, a powerful incentive exists for the unskilled restorer, whether dealer or collector, to step in.

Exactly what are the motives behind the dealer, collector or unskilled restorer, and to what extent will they go? It should surprise no one that the motto of the majority of dealers is anything goes. In other words, do any possible cosmetic alterations without regard for permanence or durability in order to make the book more readily salable - do it fast and do it cheap. I have found that private collectors who truly value their possessions tend to be much more selective, inquisitive and careful about professional standards and ethical concerns. . Many of my new clients are collectors who have never had any conservation work done previously because they had heard too many horror stories about unprofessional workmanship. The collector is interested in preservation and investment. The dealer, on the other hand, may have more venal motives. He is interested in getting the best possible price for his book. To do so, he may employ the fastest and cheapest methods so as to obtain a quick turnover in inventory. Some dealers, with their own workshops in their stores but with no professional training, are virtually experimenting with what looks best and what sells more. Consequently, because of the dual factors of ignorance and greed, a tremendous backlash has arisen against unskilled conservation in the field of comic books.

It is clear that competent, skilled and professional conservation is desperately needed to convince people that it is justifiable, desirable and necessary for preservation. What attempts can be made to set standards that will be met and upheld? My role as conservator is in part educational. A vision of mine is to create and widely distribute to stores and comic book conventions a brochure detailing conservationally sound practice and ethical standards. Thus far I have also published two articles in a national weekly trade paper for dealers, collectors, artists and other comic book professionals. My emphasis was on the principle of reversibility, the use of conservationally accepted materials, proper methods of administration, preservation by deacidification and last but not least, a warning to beware of chemically bleached and treated covers and interiors. For the most part the response was positive which tells me that the majority of collectors are aware of the problems and concerns and are eager for reliable information. However, there are unskilled restorers with no generally accepted professional qualifications who do bleach and whiten books. To date, neither I nor anyone else in the field of paper conservation knows what methods are being used. Needless to say, because details of bleaching methods and materials have not been disclosed and the process has not met with any peer review from other conservators, it should be considered experimental and not suitable for widespread commercial exploitation.

I have witnessed noticeable physical changes in comic books due to chemical bleaching performed by others. Covers may become excessively white and slightly gritty in feel, inks may be altered or faded, and interior pages may be cockled, warped and even structurally weakened due to excessive removal of lignin and to fiber scission caused by oxidative degradation. My own approach to chemical bleaching is very conservative and my clients are aware of it. For covers, I occasionally employ light bleaching, although I advise my clients that the discoloration may eventually revert. I do not use chemical bleaches on covers or interiors whatsoever. It is my belief that if a comic book is fifty years old and brown, it is best to let it stay that way. Instead, I urge collectors to deacidify their collections when their books are slightly discolored or contain tanning pages.

It is worth noting that there are honorable collectors and dealers who are willing to learn and better understand the practice of conservation. I have tried to instill in them that restoration is never completely invisible, and that when correctly performed it is always reversible and acceptable. Unfortunately, too many times I receive questions from prospective clients such as "Can you make the book look mint?" I know exactly where this person is coming from - ignorance - so I try and educate them about restoration and conservation. Motivated by pride in my own craftsmanship, I have always done the best job possible while striving to maintain a careful balance between esthetics and ethics. I always stress that collectors and dealers must take the responsibility of declaring an item as restored. In an attempt to foster a greater sense of responsibility among clients, I always submit a signed and detailed documentation of treatment performed on each book in the hope that the client in turn will pass on the information to the next owner.

As part of my ethical concern and belief, I insist on not appraising books., I simply do the best work possible and allow the client to decide the grade or value of the restored item. However, I am fully aware that some competitors of mine not only appraise books but also work as dealers and brokers. Is there not a major conflict of interest here? They seek out entire collections for purchase, restoration and resale at a profit. According to the American Institute of Conservation, such activity constitutes an egregious violation of the Code of Ethics and Standards, but such dealer/restorers work outside of the community of conservators and doubtless have never even heard of the Code of Ethics.

I have also seen restoration videotapes offering roughly thirty to forty-five minutes worth of instruction in comic book and baseball card conservation. It is distributed solely for the purpose of making a profit and contains information which is not merely worthless but actually hazardous to apply.

It is worth noting that problems such as these exist in all areas of ephemera, but are most prominent in the field of comic books because of their abundance and elevated value. By contrast, unskilled attempts at restoring original comic artwork are neither as drastic nor as frequent. Such attempts usually involve the use of some glues and adhesive tapes, but for the most part the problems are easily reversible. Also, most collectors of original comic art tend to be more mature and more respectful of the artistic (as opposed to the purely financial) value of their possessions. In another area of ephemera, sports cards, such as baseball cards, are highly desirable collectables with a currently inflated market. Mint cards from the turn of the century through the 50's often claim exorbitant prices. I have found collectors and dealers in this field to be careful and strict about what should and should not be done. Most of the focus in card conservation is on dry cleaning, stain removal and flattening of creases, with the general consensus being that no material should be added to the card. However, I have also seen cards restored to apparent perfect condition by an amateur restorer whose specialty is the virtually undetectable replacement of corners. Concerned that his restored cards would be eventually sold as unrestored items, his personal solution to this ethical concern is to mark a dot as his signature on the back of each card with India ink. As a result, clients know that the card has been restored and that it can never be sold for the mint price. Although this strategy for ethical disclosure may seem highly questionable, it is the restorer's attempt (or is it?) in the right direction to set some standards for restored items where there is no intention to deceive. Personally, my own standards are such that I am reluctant to accept work which demands obsessive structural alterations such as corner replacement on cards. I do not mark ray work as restored in any way, taut instead rely upon the integrity of my clients in this area not to sell the item as unrestored.

Establishing ethical relationships in the field of ephemera is not difficult, but does require that I exercise considerable discretion in accepting work from new clients. During the past four years,I have worked to educate many collectors and dealers across the country, and to establish ethical conservation practices in a field traditionally devoid of them. My clients have come to recognize my dedication in pursuit of high professional standards; unfortunately, it is thus far almost entirely a one-woman crusade.