Anne-Catherine Kenis grew up in a family of artists—painters Willhem Roelofs, Albert Roelofs, Albertine Deletaille, and her mother, Annette Deletaille. Between 1978 and 1986 Anne-Catherine was an assistant and restorer at her uncle’s gallery, Émile Deletaille. This early exposure to African art and antiques eventually led Anne-Catherine into a 30-year career in restoring and preserving classic African art. We speak to Anne-Catherine to learn what collectors can do to maintain the integrity of their African art objects.
"For me the most important thing is to give a piece back its beauty, to give it new life—more life."
In restoration, the first thing we need to pay attention to ‘preventative conservation’. Some objects have problems of ageing, animal damage, or in the case of earthenware, older figures and sculptures degrade and start to crumble into dust. Classic African art is fragile, so we must first care for that fragility. Only then do we apply glue or other binding materials to restore pieces back to their former glory—the curative maintenance stage. But even in this case, it’s important that whatever enhancements we make to an object must be reversible, even 20 years down the line. Another important element of restoration is increasing an object’s resistance to ageing. This is where we actually restore the object, fix any fractures, and enhance the piece.
Now, the unique thing about terracotta objects is that they are typically archaeological. In Africa, a lot of terracotta objects were excavated from the ground in fragments. In addition, when many of these pieces were dug up, there were no official programs or guidelines on the best practices in excavating and preserving these pieces. So, as a restorer of terracotta pieces, a lot of my work is like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing fragments back together again.
Unfortunately it’s not in the public domain, nobody knows that piece, not yet anyway so it’s impossible for me to share it now. I hope maybe one day the time will come when we can speak about it freely.
I worked with Jacques Kerchache to preserve terracottas from Nigeria for the launch of the Quai Branly. I think terracotta objects from Nigeria are the most important in Africa. They speak to the beauty, creativity and craftsmanship of classic African art.
Ivory is the most delicate to preserve—its very fragile and can easily be altered by salt and compression. The important thing for ivory, and also for wood, is to keep these objects in the same constant atmosphere, one without too much humidity. It’s not good for wood, in winter, to be in the heat of a radiator and then in summer, to be near an open window for example. Even better, keep these objects in a glass box if possible. Do not clean wooden objects with grease, shea butter or palm oil! I’ve seen some collectors do this. Gently dusting objects with a feather duster or a soft brush will suffice. Even simply blowing air on the piece will do. But never use any greasy products or wax, better to leave the object alone in its filthy state!
Humidity and grease are bad for bronze objects. When cleaning metal objects, clean them very carefully and softly. When we clean bronze, we put a thin coat of paraloid resin, like an acrylic dissolved in ethanol, to isolate the surface and to maintain the object’s longevity.
Terracotta has no real conservation problems because it’s like stone. However, where glue has been used to piece together the object, it’s best to avoid direct sunlight as too much heat is not good for the glue.
African art objects were in use during their time and in their culture. They had a life of their own before being gathered and scattered around the world. This traditional use and function is what gave them this patina. Each object has its authentic and specific patina. After which, the object is passed on from the archeologist to the dealer then to the collector where it will finally sit on a pedestal.
Not every object is kept in a favourable environment for its preservation. Some of the objects are sometimes ‘enhanced’ by carefree owners and fraudulent dealers. They consequently suffer from bad manipulations and treatments sometimes disastrous and irreversible.
"An acute and expert observing eye and knowledge are the first requirements for the art lover!"
So first, every collector must see a lot of objects. Go to museums, look at books, learn and study similar pieces. You must know the culture and know what this piece was used for in its original context. When looking at the work, give special attention to the stylistic corpus, the material, its surface, the marks of erosion and age (manganese oxide in archaeological terms), and of course do the scientific tests (thermo-luminescence, scanner, metallography). With that knowledge you will have a good idea if the patina is ok or not. If a piece is too shiny, or too clean then better to have a little suspicion because there are so many fakes now on the market… so many. Fakes are more abundant and well done. Sometimes entire collections can be made up of counterfeits unfortunately. But in my opinion there aren’t any perfect fakes yet.
Best thing is to ask, ask, and ask some more. Ask restorers about the pieces you are interested in. We have a lot of knowledge about objects and patina because we’ve seen and handled a lot of objects. We can also use products to test if an object is normal or not, if it’s been restored or not, if it’s in good condition or not. When an experienced restorer who has had hundreds of pieces in his/her hands looks at a fake, he/she can identify it as an imitation or fake pretty confidently.
Finally, deal with good dealers, they are responsible for their objects. If you have suspicions about an object, they will give you your money back or offer up a similar object.