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Art Conservation and Restoration as Ethical Issue


The role of museums, art galleries, and private collectors is to ensure that the art in their possession is well preserved. This is an ethical issue that is expected of them, and the aim should be to maintain the aesthetic value of the piece of art, though economic considerations do come in1. The contemporary art market is highly diversified, presenting art dealers and collectors with different ethical systems. This complicates matters when it comes to restoration and conservation and how they relate to ethics and the market value of art. Ethics is at the heart of any debate concerning conservation and restoration, especially if the debate expands to touch on the market value of art.

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There are twin issues to be looked at here; the need to preserve the art for future generations, and the need to increase its market value for better profits. It all boils down to the real value of art. Highly ethical individuals would appraise the value of art based on authenticity, history, cultural value, and heritage. However, restoration and conservation sometimes erode these values, yet increase the market value of the art pieces by enhancing various desirable characteristics. Sometimes the cultural value and the economic value of art go hand in hand, with art objects of high cultural heritage fetching high prices on the market.

However, sometimes the restoration techniques are applied with the primary aim not being to preserve the authentic integrity of the art pieces but to enhance their profitability in the market. Such a move places the economic value of the art higher than its real cultural value and heritage, which should form the basis for the real value of art. This paper looks at the issue in a broad context and tries to demonstrate that conservation and restoration are purely ethical issues, which add nothing to the value of art.


In conserving a piece of art, efforts are made towards preserving it by trying to stop it from deteriorating while ensuring that it is not altered in any way2. The main motivation for conservation is to prolong the lifespan of the piece of art so that it can be appreciated for many generations to come. Conservation efforts can be termed as either active or passive. Active conservation involves the use of technological and scientific means to increase the lifespan of a piece of art. This is considered unethical in some quarters since it goes opposite to the idea of not altering the art object in any way. It is also considered a short-lived approach to conservation.

Furthermore, the technology and materials used in conserving some of the art forms may end up being counterproductive in the future3. This means that the only real ethical conservation techniques would be those that use reversible treatments that conserve the artistic value of the object. The conservation techniques are meant to preserve the originality of the art as much as possible, and this is an ethical issue that should not be compromised for other reasons like profit-making. Passive conservation offers a more ethical way of preserving art objects. The objects are put in natural settings that prolong their lifespan and facilitate their long-term preservation.

They are kept in a pollution-free environment with optimum temperature conditions, and they are handled and stored using synthetic materials4. This method helps in preserving the art object without any undue alterations, so viewers get to see the original piece instead of an altered version. This ethical consideration should guide conservation efforts.


Restoration is done with the aim of enhancing certain features of the art object. For example, the buildings in heritage sites that are at risk of complete deterioration and collapse can be put under prolonged periods of restoration to prevent their complete ruin. Broken pieces of art can be glued back together in order to try to maintain their forms as a whole. This is mainly for ethical reasons so that viewers can see the piece of art in almost its original form.

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Restoration can be viewed as part of a more general conservation process. Restoration is, in essence, an ethical undertaking in which the guardians of important pieces of art try to ensure that the pieces do not degenerate into an unsalvageable state of ruin. Those of a contrary opinion would point out that restoration goes against the core ethics of museums since it diminishes the object’s originality. They further argue that restoration cannot be separated from aesthetic moderation, which goes against the ethics that museums and art galleries are supposed to follow. The viewer is made to look at a piece of art and think it is authentic yet it has been modified through artificial means5.

Ethics and Market Valuation

When talking about restoration and conservation, people tend to refer to ancient and historic art. Examples include the Coliseum in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens and the pyramids of Egypt. These are very important historical pieces of art and architecture that need to be preserved. They represent important periods in history, and this is what necessitates their preservation, even though this preservation also brings a lot of tourist revenue to the authorities. There is general consensus on the need to restore and conserve these highly popular international artifacts6. However, theoretical problems arise when art is viewed as a representation of creative history.

This means that art cannot belong to a particular time or place. New art becomes a part of history if it shows some characteristic uniqueness, and seems to constantly recede from the present time. Therefore, in trying to understand the ethical dynamics surrounding restoration and conservation, there are some points that need to be thoroughly reviewed. First, art should be viewed as a link to the past, even when it is conceived in the present, it moves from the present to the past. Those charged with caring for art are therefore handling great responsibility since it represents human ideals like identity and heritage7.

These ideals have significant influence on the ethics and value bestowed upon any piece of art in the market. A second point to consider is the way in which uniqueness gives a piece of art legitimacy. This will also determine the cultural capital represented by that piece of art. This quality of uniqueness will be used to determine which pieces of art need to be restored and preserved, and which ones need to be discarded or left to fade away. This consideration also makes art which is considered to have been created first to be given higher value in terms of cultural heritage.

The issue of cultural heritage is very significant, and must be at the heart of every debate concerning conservation and restoration. There are also political and ideological considerations that have to be part of the whole mix. For example, looking at art from the Renaissance era, through to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, one can observe some form of continuity in the art, culture, and politics in a way that is representative of European hegemony. Conservation makes some art objects to be given preferential treatment above the others, such that the conservation objects do not evolve in the same way as the commonplace, non-conservation objects8. This is one very important point that reinforces the argument that conservation and restoration are purely ethical issues.

The market value placed on any piece of art should, therefore, be taken as being reflective of the position of cultural identity and high cultural status that it has achieved. This will influence the extent to which efforts have to be put in to conserve and preserve the art object. Its market value is also set to increase with the passage of time, so the conservation and restoration efforts go hand in hand with the economic considerations. The cultural value and the market value of an art form are interconnected in this regard, since the art forms with higher cultural value tend to attract a higher economic value in the market.

Conservation confers both cultural and economic value to an aesthetic object that would otherwise have little or no utility. In this context, conservation presents a paradox just as much as interpretation does in the art world. There is always a grey area that exists concerning one person’s evaluation of a piece of art and another person’s opinions about the same. Conservation can also be seen in this light; it is based on inherently subjective evaluations. Other factors that influence conservation include location, political ideology and the economics of taste9.

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Sometimes the restoration input needed is a lot, so in the end there is debate whether such restored pieces can still be regarded as the authentic pieces from way back in history. The conservationists, however, argue that it is through their efforts that we are able to fully appreciate the cultural value of the artifacts as they try to present them, as they were as much as possible. The restoration and conservation procedures impart permanent changes on the historical artifacts, and this is what makes other people be opposed to such efforts since, in essence, the procedures change the way the artifacts present history from way back.

Collectors and conservationists sometimes feel the need to restore derelict and obsolete pieces to increase their market value, but in reality, this cannot increase the cultural value of the piece of art10. In the art world, the cultural value is the most important, and should not be unduly compromised for economic considerations.

Cultural value vs. Economic value

Spectators and buyers of restore art cannot see the permanent structural changes that the art pieces have undergone as a result of the restoration process. In fact, the techniques are so good the changes cannot be seen with the naked eye, and one needs advanced Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) techniques to discern the changes11. This has raised a lot of questions regarding the authenticity and legitimacy of the whole restoration process. Are the art galleries putting more emphasis on making profits rather than displaying authentic art? Should they be allowed to pass off the restored art as authentic pieces from the past?

It emerges that restoration and conservation are ethical issues that are dependent on the dynamics of culture, heritage valuation of the artifacts. It is ethical to preserve and prolong the lifespan of important historical monuments for the sake of future generations, but if this is done with the bigger aim being to enhance their economic value, it negates the completely ethical reasoning behind conservation. There is also the point about infringing on the artist’s original vision, which, in most cases, goes contrary to the overriding economic considerations that drive the trade in art pieces in the market. There are some modern artists, like Hesse in the 1960s, who gave little consideration to the conservation of their artwork and instead focused on the cultural value of the exhibition12.

They did not mind if their artwork got discolored or disintegrated, after all, deterioration and decay applies to all forms of life. These artists opened our eyes to the fact that conservation and restoration practices also need to take into consideration the artists, as well as the collectors and consumers. It would be highly unethical to change an artist’s work until it loses its cultural identity, yet still sell it for the sake of making profits. The museums and art galleries also have different ways through which they interpret issues to do with conservation and restoration. This influences their opinions on ethics and valuation of art in general.

There is no standard approach to restoration and conservation that is applied by all museums and art galleries13. There are some art collectors who will try to strictly adhere to the ethical means of preserving art while still remaining relevant in the market, and there are those who will totally disregard the ethics and focus purely on making money in the market. Regardless of whichever stance one takes, it is important to remember that the real value of the art is in the historical and cultural heritage. Enhancing the piece of art for economic purposes may increase its market value, but it will not increase its real cultural value. It is an ethical issue, which everyone is left to decide on how to interpret.


There is general consensus that restoration and conservation efforts represent ethical issues to all those concerned with art. They are important when it comes to preservation of art, ad they give future generations a chance to also share in the culture and heritage that they represent. Many people would not want to see important pieces of art and architecture being left to deteriorate and disintegrate. This is what gives restoration and conservation ethical weight. On the other hand, the art market, just like other financial markets, is about making profits. This means that issues like ethics and cultural heritage become less important while sales and profits become the main considerations.

In this situation, conservation and restoration are used, not to preserve the cultural heritage of the piece of art, but to increase its profitability in the art market. Since the art pieces are being sold, it is only logical that the market behaves just like other markets, with profitability being the main consideration. However, this does not mean that the conservation and restoration techniques enhance the value of art, which is based on the cultural identity, heritage, and uniqueness. The restoration techniques do increase the value of the art pieces in the contemporary art market, since after all the pieces are being sold for profit.

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However, authenticity is based on real cultural heritage and identity, and art forms can only be considered authentic if they retain as much of their original form and components as possible. Therefore, it is an ethical issue for the museums and art collectors to decide whether they want to present authentic art forms that have real cultural value, or enhanced art forms that will fetch high market prices. Nevertheless, conservation and restoration are meant for ethical purposes, and they do not add to the real value of the art.


Alloway, Lawrence. Art and the Complex Present. UMI: Ann Abor, 1984.

Barclay, Robert. The Art of the Trumpet-Maker: The Materials, Tools, and Techniques of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Nuremberg. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society: Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture v. 1 (Information Age Series): The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Davison, Sandra, and R. G. Newton. Conservation and Restoration of Glass. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001.

Greene, Robert. Internet Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Haynes, David James. “Interrogating New Media” in King, E.A. & Levin, G. (eds) (2006), Ch. 13, 175-184.

Hoffman, Barbara T. Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Kaufman, Roy S. Art Law Handbook 2002 Cumulative Supplement. New York: Aspen Law & Business, 2000.

McAndrew, Clare. Fine Art and High Finance: Expert Advice on the Economics of Ownership. New York: Bloomberg Press, 2010.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of the New Media. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.

Rush, Michael. New Media in Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Stallabras, Jullian. Internet Art: The online clash of Culture and Commerce. London: Tate Publishing, 2003.


  1. Clare McAndrew. Fine Art and High Finance: Expert Advice on the Economics of Ownership (New York: Bloomberg Press, 2010), 45.
  2. Sandra Davison and R. G. Newton. Conservation and Restoration of Glass (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001), 12.
  3. Ibid, 137.
  4. Jullian Stallabras. Internet art: The online clash of Culture and Commerce (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), 302.
  5. Lawrence Alloway. Art and the Complex Present (UMI: Ann Abor, 1984), 287.
  6. Lev Manovich. The Language of the New Media (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001), 254.
  7. Robert Barclay. The Art of the Trumpet-Maker: The Materials, Tools, and Techniques of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Nuremberg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 178
  8. Michael Rush. New Media in Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005), 198.
  9. Manuel Castells. The Rise of the Network Society: Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture v. 1 (Information Age Series): The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 94.
  10. Robert Greene. Internet Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 301.
  11. David James Haynes. “Interrogating New Media” in King, E.A. & Levin, G. (eds) (2006), Ch. 13, 175-184.
  12. Barbara T Hoffman. Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 267.
  13. Kaufman, Roy S. Art Law Handbook 2002 Cumulative Supplement (New York: Aspen Law & Business, 2000), 109.

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