Authenticity and Restoration in Paintings

Paintings are not only pieces of material testimony; some are revered as unique pieces, of which the loss could be fatal to the art sphere. To combat their inevitable material degradation, preservation science, through the two bodies of conservation and restoration, is in charge of the up-keep of paintings. While conservation prevents further damage to a piece, and reinforces it for the future, restoration actually alters the physical state a painting finds itself in, through repairs and in-paintings, in search of retrieving a lost ideal state.
There are numerous ongoing questions regarding restoration, and I wish here to question its limits with regards to a piece’s authenticity. Indeed, the question is a simple one, yet the answer isn’t: how far can restorers go with re-touchings, until it affects a painting’s authenticity?

To attempt answering this question need to be studied the limits of restoration, both ethical and technical, as the profession defines them. However, first and foremost must be established what ‘authenticity’ is, what it stands for restorers, for artists, as well as for the rest of the art-world. Only then shall we be able to submit to it the ethics of restoration, in order to try to gage exactly how far restorers should or could go when touching up a piece.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘authentic’ as “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine,” but adds several other definitions after this main one: “made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original” and “based on facts; accurate or reliable.” The etymology of the word tells us its roots originate from the Greek authentikos, ‘principal, genuine.’

Aside from the second definition concerning the resemblance to an original, we already are given an understanding of what ‘authenticity’ means, and indeed, the word stands on the same grounds as ‘authority’, ‘reliability’ and ‘genuineness’, in opposition to ‘copied’, ‘pretended’, ‘counterfeit’ or ‘forged’. Art historians have debated over the meaning of authenticity, but one general, theoretical understanding is that it comes from, and represents, a piece’s “unique existence” amongst other pieces and amongst copies.

However, within the art-world, and the cultural heritage conservation professionals, ‘authenticity’ branches itself out into many areas, multiplying its interpretations. Indeed, with regards to an artwork’s authenticity, Henry Cleere underlines the five different authenticities involved: Authenticity of design, or form; Authenticity of materials; Authenticity of workmanship, or technique; Authenticity of setting, or of site, and finally Authenticity of function. Apart from the first one, all of them are immaterial, and therefore unaffected, in theory, by restoration. And indeed, when it comes to a painting’s authenticity, “the uniqueness of the work of art [depends] on its artistic nature.” This is an important understanding, for it differs from other types of authenticities found in other milieux than that of the art world and market. From here on, we shall therefore focus on restoration with regards to its effect solely on the material and artistic authenticity of paintings.

Let us now introduce restoration. The International Council of Museums – Committee of Conservation (ICOM-CC), main body of international heritage conservation, relates to three terms when dealing with heritage conservation: “‘preventive conservation ’, ‘remedial conservation’ and ‘restoration’ which together constitute ‘conservation’ of the tangible cultural heritage.” Restoration is therefore considered as the final part of a conservation treatment, because it does not deal with damage prevention and halting damage through stabilisation, but indeed with acts such as, for paintings, canvas stretching and structuring, glazing and in-paintings. These all physically alter a painting, with, as main ambition, the restitution a piece’s ideal state.
Before considering what such an ideal state can be, let us study how, in order for a piece to be given this treatment, it has to be considered worth of conservation.
The paintings that do deserve this conservation and restoration treatment are indeed ones that have been recognised by certain individuals as worthy, as special and as displaying certain qualities that other paintings do not hold. These can be sentimental values, or they can be based on academic knowledge and art-market values. However, ultimately, these values are inexplicable things that make a painting special over others and make an irreplaceable item. Indeed, the values which make a painting worthy of being restored are linked to an idea that there is only one authentic exemplary, and that said painting is exposed to what Roberto di Stefano calls “utilisation sans consommation,” (non-consumptive use) a desire to keep them integral despite still using them, and in spite of them representing a non-renewable resource.

Importantly, and this is one of the roots of the issue debated in this paper, it turns out that authenticity, despite the word’s Greek origins, it represents quite a modern concept and has been made important by the art world only in recent times. In history, Leo Koerner explains that examples such as The Descent from the Cross, by Rogier van der Weyden, dated to around 1435, and located at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, were copied multiple times under the orders of private individuals, certainly because it was good, but more so as a sort of souvenir, just as we nowadays would buy a postcard. Indeed, by owning a copy, an individual could bring themselves back in memory to the Prado, therefore exhibiting a higher prestige of site and concept, than of the object itself.

This lack of interest in the original image, would mean that, as long as it still looked like the original, a painting, before our modern era, would still have the same effect, and would be related to just as well by the viewer. It also links back, interestingly, to the second dictionary definition for authenticity: “made […] in a way that faithfully resembles an original” which would suggest even more that our understanding of ‘authentic’ is not very authentic in itself anymore, than it has been skewed. Indeed, it suggests how our view on artworks and on authenticity’s importance has changed over the years; nowadays the ‘original’ piece being the most sought-after, and mere reproductions being seen as mere gimmicks, or infringing counterfeits.

Therefore, we should question how the restoration profession has been or is being affected by this modern concept of authenticity, and how restoration responds to the modern desire to keep only the original and to keep it authentic as much as possible.

Indeed, the main question here becomes who demands authenticity from an object and how this is done. As it is easily and readily understandable how restoration can deface a painting’s authenticity, for the simple act of touching a painting can create a loss of primary artistic imprint, we have to question how restoration can work around the issue of defacing a painting’s aura, “if authenticity is assumed to reside in a painting’s original condition.” The answer to this lies in the understanding of the many meanings of authenticity.

Firstly, David Western poses the problem faced in a philosophical way, rhetorically asking: “at what point does the restored work become more authentic in appearance even though less faithful in bush strokes? […] At what point will the reproduction better represent the artist’s original rendition than the degraded material?
This opposition between an authenticity of appearance and concept, against authenticity of materials, such as original brush strokes, perhaps tells us that authenticity may not actually have much to do, in the end, with the fact that a certain artist has personally touched and graced a piece with his or her gestures.
Indeed, we have to consider that authenticity may not simply lie within the physical realm. Indeed, as Western writes, “without its history and context, what is art?” This implies indeed that a piece’s importance lies not only in it appearance, but most importantly in its genesis and effect upon the world. In this case, is it however imaginable that a piece can physically change but still manage to carry its history?
For instance, is it feasible to imagine a Picasso, of which practically none of the original paint and pigments remain, but which still looks as it did when the piece was first deemed complete, to still be able to tell us about its story and how it affected the world around it?
I think so, because simply of the fact that history and context are things recorded by man, nearly completely independent from the physical painting. In a sense, the painting is a piece of the puzzle that is art history, and it is an actor as much as a witness.
Yet, if context and art history define art, or give a meaning and sense to art, then authenticity, as we think of it in a physical sense, shouldn’t matter anymore, as long as the conceptual authenticity remains, and as long as the piece can still tell us of the artist’s original intent, of its genesis and its impact upon our world and society. In this sense, physical alterations to a painting – a restorer’s actions – do not impede on the value reciprocally exchanged between the piece and history.

This indeed means that authenticity and its defining aspects actually do not lie within the painting at all, but lie within the viewer of the painting. Vanlaethem and Poisson write that

authenticity is not a particular quality of [a] monument – the continued existence of its material or its ‘prime’ signification – […] but a judgement, a semiotic construct, inseparable from the context in which it is developed with the involvement of a variety of people and from the aims being pursued.”

which makes us understand a piece’s authenticity as beyond the physical realm. This however poses the following question: who is the judge? Western importantly asks us, “is the eye the judge, or the conscience?”

Second, Salvador Muñoz-Viñas explains that conservation-restoration does not care about authenticity in the same way as the owner of a painting does. Indeed, he explains that, to conservators, the authentic state of an item is that in which the item finds itself in the present moment; whereas, to the general art-world and viewers’ opinion, “the notion of authenticity is used as a noble disguise for other notions: needs, preferences, values, meanings.” This signifies that, contrarily to the conservator’s material culture appeal for an object’s intrinsic story, the art-world and art-admirers much prefer to null a painting’s history, told physically by degradations, in order to bring it back to a preferable state, most often linked to aesthetics. As such, Muñoz-Viñas explains,

the authentic condition of an object may be considered to be a different, non-existing condition – or a hypothetical, non-existing condition may be considered to be more authentic than the present existing condition.”

Yet, interestingly, any ‘past condition’ of an object, which would be considered as its ‘ideal authentic state’, remains, in present time, either a memory or a hypothesis – it is never the actual reality.

This reversal of thought therefore places the blame for potential loss of authenticity no longer on the physical alterations brought by a conservator to a piece, but indeed to the commissioner of the treatment, who deems the object no longer acceptable in its current form with regards to their own personal belief. This is in accordance, importantly, to some artists’ understanding of their own works of art as well as to laws gravitating around artists. Indeed, the Visual Artists Rights Act “gives artists moral rights to disclaim their works and prevent their alteration by third parties.” It has been known to happen in history, with examples such as that of Cady Noland, who threatened to withdraw authorship for a print which, after physical alterations, she claimed would prejudice her career.

Supposedly, one should think the artist would have all rights to do so, simply through authorship. However, for late artists, these moral rights have escaped and landed in the hands of the art world, an art world which, very often, damages the authenticity of pieces in many other aspects that materiality. Indeed, even changing a painting’s environment can deface its intrinsic values, artistic intents and physical appearance, which all relate to its authenticity. A painting’s first intended hanging location often is a whole part of its meaning, as well as the original context and lighting would have produced an original, ‘authentic’ viewing experience that has been lost with time, for the simple reason that all of these original factors can never be kept intact themselves. We can therefore consider restoration as only a mere portion of a man-made, art world induced problem. This means, importantly, that restoration acts such as retouching a painting only cause an infringement problem to those who establish the ‘rules’ of the issue.

It now becomes apparent that the understanding of authenticity, and who defines it, turn out to be the varying factors when it comes to the alteration of a piece, and not the variety of restoration actions available, for restoration is forced to adapt itself according to demands.
Indeed, altering paintings has, together with the concept of authenticity, changed over the years. As such, in-paintings, for example, used to be much more widely spread than they are now, as objects are now more often left in their current states, rather than being rejuvenated to an ideal state.
Such changes came with the modernisation of conservation, as well as the improved meticulousness and ethics of the profession, but is more so majorly linked to the modern understandings of authenticity, as well as what is expected from an object. Indeed, as Jonathan Ashley-Smith explains, conservator-restorers themselves are not faced with ethical questionings, for they are “mere technicians”, receiving instructions from the owner of a piece, who has all rights of decision on the fate of the piece and what is wished for it.
Therefore, since a restorer will, nowadays, follow instructions from a body of authority, restoration cannot be blamed for the issues of defacing a piece’s identity, authenticity and aura.

As such, the impact of restoration can remain minimal or null according to the understanding of the painting by its owner. However, it has to be argued therefore that the owner of a painting has the main responsibility with regards to its material authenticity. Further, anyone who cherishes a painting, for its authenticity, or for emotional values, will not want it to degrade in time. Therefore, anyone would agree, however strict an understanding of authenticity they have, that restoration, at one point or another, will become a necessary measure, for prevention can only do so much against the hardships of time. No one would wish for absolutely no action to be taken, for a piece might remain authentic in materials in its degradation, it does not retain its testimony of artistic intent, and it will eventually not be in a physical state to be seen any longer.

I would therefore put forward the idea that, because degradation is unchangeable, and restoration seems unavoidable, it is then our ethical understandings which need to shift and adapt to the situation. Therefore, our understanding of authenticity, continually fluctuating over the ages and according to personal belief, would tend to be a positive thing, for it allows for flexibility around something as rigid and nonconforming as time and decay.

It is now clear that the philosophical limit of restoration finds itself established by the definition of authenticity. Additionally, as Cesare Brandi writes, if we assume that “the transmission of the formulated image actually occurs through the materials,” supposing therefore that materials are transmitting agents, then “the materials should never take precedence over the image.”
This not only means that the real aesthetic authenticity of a painting does not lie in its materials, that “the materials have to disappear as materials in order to be valued as images,” it also contrastingly tells us that, should restoration happen on a painting, it should not be visible, for, as Brandi explains, “the pure reality of the image will consequently be disturbed” should the materials overshadow the image, due to, for example, fresh additions and in-paintings.

This contrasted view of materials within authenticity can only mean one thing, with regards to authenticity in the art world: restoration requires to respect, overall, Aesthetic Authenticity as much as possible, and is forced by the urgent modern importance of authenticity in art to do so as meticulously as possible, following orders and often taking the blame for any deemed infringement.

As such, in order to respect Aesthetic and Material Authenticities, restorers – despite being ‘mere technicians’ – still hold the key to the potential prejudice. Thus, to protect themselves, the art world and the painting, the profession has had to adapt to this ploy that is authenticity within the art world, and now needs to document its methods and working copiously, in order for the non-original to be discerned within the original. As Nobuo Ito explains:

if ‘authenticity’ is defined as genuineness, even the replacement of one timber would result in the violation of authenticity. However, if the meaning of authenticity can include reliability, the situation will become more flexible.
If minute examination is made before replacement, the quantity of replaced parts is minimized, the size, quality and species of new material are the same ones as the previous ones, the workmanship is the same, and the report is published after the work, the replacement would never violate authenticity.”

This passage places a great emphasis on clarity within treatment, but also a carries out the aforementioned idea of tolerance towards the fact that restoration is an absolute necessity for any painting of which is wished a stable aesthetically pleasing value.
Yet, as we have seen, authenticity can also be affected within a distortion of context and concept, which voids a piece’s testimony as it was originally intended by the artist. Therefore, restoration is not the only danger faced by authenticity; rather, the main danger, as we have seen, remains the viewer’s expectations, fantasies and desires. We must indeed accept the fact that we cannot keep everything intact and authentic, and therefore we must not only become more flexible with our definition of authentic, as well as with our expectations of a painting, but we should also take into account its whole life history, for it is intrinsic to its real, non-aesthetic authenticity.


  • Brandi, C., Theory of Restoration, Basile, G. ed., Firenze: Nardini, 2005.
  • Fiske, T., Hermens, E., eds, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context, London: Archetype Publications, 2009.
  • Gagliardi, P. et al. eds., Coping with the Past: Creative Perspectives on Conservation and Restoration, Firenze: Olschki, 2010.
  • Larsen, K. E., ed., Nara Conference on Authenticity in relation to the World Heritage Convention, Tokyo: ICOMOS, 1994.
  • Muñoz-Viñas, S., Contemporary Theory of Conservation, London: Elsevier, 2005.
  • Phillips, D., Exhibiting Authenticity, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
  • Price, N., et al. eds., Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 1996.

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