Since it was given to the museum in 1961, this old master painting has left the confines of the museum several times, under authorized and unauthorized pretexts. Most notably, The Coin Collector was stolen in the 1960s and has been entrusted to professional conservators twice.
Theft in the 1960s
One night, in the spring of 1967, thieves broke into Krannert Art Museum and stole six paintings, including The Coin Collector. The robbery made national news. The headline of the Chicago Tribune read “U. OF I. PAINTINGS STOLEN” and notices appeared in papers as far away as Montgomery, Alabama. (figure 2, above)
The FBI assisted university officials with their investigation but the thieves were never caught. Fortunately, all six paintings were recovered; the extensive news coverage must have made the robbers reconsider trying to sell the works. In 1969, unidentified individuals returned the paintings to the museum, much to everyone’s relief.
Unfortunately, the paintings did not return unscathed. They had been removed from their frames and handled improperly.
As a result, they sustained minor scratches, dents, and abrasions. Museum staff sent the paintings to Alfred Jakstas, a Chicago-area conservator who made the damage largely undetectable to the naked eye.
Two of the recovered paintings are noted works in the Krannert Art Museum collection, Winslow Homer’s Cernay la Ville—French Farmand Dwight William Tryon’s Sunrise.
Conservation in the 1960s
The Coin Collector was returned with three small dents in the lower left corner of the oak panel, in the area where the man’s sleeve is painted.
In 1969, Mr. Jakstas worked to remove discolored surface films and previous overpainting. He then applied a varnish layer to isolate the original surface from any new additions and filled the small dents with gesso.
The dents were subsequently in-painted with reversible conservation pigments and another coat of varnish was applied. Finally, he covered the back of the panel with wax to help insulate it from fluctuations in humidity.
New Concerns in 2008
While conservation of The Coin Collector in 1969 addressed the minor surface damage caused by the careless thieves, by 2008 it had become apparent that more work was needed to resolve additional problems. The need for supplementary conservation is not surprising. Most old master paintings require periodic care and treatment; they are several hundred years old, after all.
Part of the problem was that The Coin Collector had been framed improperly, with retaining nails at the sides, not at the top and bottom. The painting is on an oak panel with a natural curvature—it needs to be able to swell and contract in response to changing humidity. Nails at the sides restricted this movement, creating stress and causing the panel to start to crack. (figure 3, above.)
In addition, in the almost 40 years since The Coin Collector was last conserved, small areas of flaking paint had appeared on the surface of the work. This paint needed to be secured with a gel medium before the panel could be reframed. Working to safeguard the painting until this work could take place, museum staff stored The Coin Collector, flat on a shelf, in a carefully controlled environment.
Recent Conservation (2015–2016)
Thanks to the expertise and generosity of conservator Barry Bauman and the Wilma Alston Fund, The Coin Collector is once again stable and suitable for exhibition. Starting in late 2015, Mr. Bauman worked to clean the surface of the panel to remove dirt and air pollution, using a non-phosphate pH-neutral detergent solvent. (figure 4, above)
The varnish was also removed, as were all former areas of restoration work (the inpainted dents). Using a gelatin adhesive, the small areas of flaking paint were reset and the painting was varnished with a non-yellowing coating.
Using conservation pigments, the small dents and old paint losses were retouched and a coating of non-yellowing spray varnish was applied. Finally, the oak panel was properly refitted in its frame and secured at the top and bottom, to allow it to respond to subtle changes in its environment.
With structural and aesthetic issues now resolved, this old master painting has been returned to the galleries. (figure 1, above)
Author: Maureen Warren, Curator of European & American Art, 2016