A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Should a conservator risk her reputation to preserve suspect artifacts, or let them fall apart?
A client of mine, an amateur historian and art collector, brought me a deteriorating Roman sword he purchased from the online auction site eBay. He asked me to clean, stabilize, and preserve it. As I examined the orange-red corrosion and white salt encrustations, noting fragments that had exploded off the surface and areas only a few millimeters thick, I realized I might be professionally obligated not to conserve it. The sword had no provenance or export documents to prove it had been scientifically excavated or lawfully sold.
Art conservators are dedicated to preserving cultural heritage and we deplore looting and damage to archaeological sites and artifacts. We are also acutely aware of the harm that can occur from leaving fragile objects unconserved. Deciding whether to work on the sword was a moment of crisis in my career. Conserving it could be considered unethical or unprofessional, while ignoring the piece could put it at risk of disintegrating. Was I accountable to the physical artifact, my profession, or the archaeological community?
Sanchita Balachandran is an art conservator based in Baltimore, MD, and will be teaching a course on the history and ethics of art conservation at The Johns Hopkins University.