Is Restoration Dying?

First Ed. Tom Sawyer, seen at the 2019 NYC Armory Book Show a few weeks ago.

Twenty years ago this Tom Sawyer, and other expensive first editions, were often extensively restored. This often involved a lot of conservationally questionable work. Redying or painting abrasions in the cloth, sophisticating the text with better boards from later editions, mixing partial textblocks with better condition plates were all common practice. Anything, really, that would make the book appear in more pristine condition.

Dust jackets, often worth more than the book they covered, were treated similarly with invasive, invisible, and often irreversible restoration done to make them look brand new. And now, the untouched ones are worth more than ones that has been messed with. Uh-oh.

And if the label on this Tom Sawyer is a harbinger of the market, things are changing for the books too. I personally became interested in old books because I liked the way old books looked, and didn’t want to change that. Generally speaking, old books and other old things are becoming more valuable when they are genuinely old, exhibit use value, have wear, patina, history, and character. Authenticity, in a word. Three reasons for this come to mind for this change: we spend more time virtually, are overwhelmed with disposable objects that can’t be fixed or retained, and there is a dwindling supply of unaltered old objects. I’m sure there are others.

A recent NY Times article about high end watches neatly summarizes some reasons for the appreciation — romanticization?— of older watches, which also could apply to books. “… old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen [DeGeneres]) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans… .” A millennial friend of mine likened the record player in her living room to a fireplace: of course it is not necessary, but it is comforting to engage with a durable antiquated technology that takes a little bit of attention and care. It wasn’t an audiophile’s opining: she liked the thingness of it.

There is an imposing presence when you hold an older book in your hands.  A Benjaminian “aura”. Somehow just knowing this object has seen so much over the years impacts us.  The scars, damage, wear, uniqueness, and trauma an object has encountered can often add aesthetic and sometimes even informational value. An extreme example might be the books that were damaged while by stopping a bullet, possibly saving a life. Despite being mass produced, nineteenth century titles are often unique, due to the amount of handwork that went into them at various stages of the binding, and the physical traces from their existence in time and space.

Yet I fear the book dealer’s sign on this Tom Sawyer may swing the pendulum too far. Although I only looked at this book under glass, I could think of a few very minor treatments that would greatly extend the life of this object when handled, without impacting its aesthetic value, use value, patina or other inherent qualities. Is “free from repair” a good thing if the joint continues to tear with each opening? Or was the dealer sophisticated enough to distinguish between restoration, repair and conservation?

A professional conservator (i.e. me) takes their ethical obligations to the object entrusted to their care seriously, and most of us pledge to do this in writing.  The AIC guidelines for practice specifically discuss compensation for loss and reversibility.  Restoration treatment may or may not reversible: conservation treatment always should be. This may be the main reason for the notice on the Tom Sawyer book: a future owner could move forward with a more invasive treatment, depending on the intended uses of the book, but could not go back. And this affects the value.

Are we finally witnessing a place for conservation oriented book treatments in the marketplace and recognition in the public sphere?

 

How Many Soles

How many soles have tread on this board shear clamp pedal?  How many decades did it take the original deep crosshatching  to become almost completely eroded in the center of the pedal? How long did it take for the original japanning to become mirror polished? How many different people have used this machine?  How many shins has this pedal bloodied?  How many blades has this machine had? How many cloth case bindings have been cut on this machine?  How many boxes? How many curses have been hurled at this machine,when something was miscut?

And how many times has this board shear subtly retaliated, going minutely out of square, cutting one book board a hair short, tearing material rather than cutting, or even pinching a finger in quiet defiance, only to be stepped on once again?

Short Pencils

This pencil box, filled with well worn pencils, strikes me as extremely poignant.  Someone treasured, or at least saved these used up pencils and eventually they were resold to in a junk shop.  It is increasingly rare to even see well worn objects– things just break or get discarded because they are obsolete or out of fashion.  No one today (except Jim Croft!) would ever consider using a pencil that is so short, awkwardly grasping it at the end of two fingers and a thumb, then slowly writing.  I imagine when the ferrule prevented the pencils from entering any further into the pencil sharpener, someone removed it and tried to sharpen them from the other end.  Using the ferrule to make the double ended pencil seems an absurd amount of work for very little benefit.  But since many of the pencils appear not to have been used after being sharpened, were these made as an exercise to pass the time? Could the person who made this not be able to afford a new pencil, or just being creative?  Even the pencil box, well constructed with finger joints and a sliding lid, is a rarity these days.  The remains of these pencils are possibly more interesting than the words or numbers that they once wrote– pointing to the value and importance of tools.

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For those old enough remember card catalogs and the little pencils (aka. golf pencils) scattered around them, this informative documentary explores where they come from, how they were made and how they were used.  Documentaries like this one give us a fascinating glimpse into how earlier cultures lived, worked,  and constructed the objects of daily life.

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The new Zebra mechanical pencils, available from Staples and Amazon, costing 39 cents each are close to ideal. They are light, cheap and cleverly designed. The lead that comes with the pencil is fairly poor quality, but is easily replaced. Pressing the eraser advances the lead. But  their best feature is their perfect overall length– most pencils are too long, at least for my hand, and have been that way for the past 100 years or more.