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IN A Web feature put out by Axa-Nordstern, one of the world’s top fine art insurers, there is a discussion on the conservation dilemma of Damien Hirst’s rapidly decomposing shark, which, in its rotting state, seriously damages the impact of one of the most important artworks of past years. Hirst once claimed that the shark was incidental to the work, the formaldehyde crucial – the huge volume of liquid is enough, you don’t really need the shark at all, he said. The formaldehyde used to preserve the iconic shark was a five per cent solution; a formula which may have hastened its dilapidation and which has conservation scientists in a tizzy as a stronger solution will obscure the continuously exhibited shark.

Hirst doesn’t give a damn, seeing the formaldehyde as not for preservation, but used only to communicate an idea; something with which the shark’s owner, Charles Saatchi, may not agree.

Formaldehyde has a brief mention in the rather more rarefied conservation and restoration planes inhabited by the National Trust, appearing under Natural History in wet natural history collections (page 224). Looking After Antiques does, however, throw up a number of interesting references in a book in which Dr Nigel Seeley, Head of Conservation at the National Trust, rather loftily explains in his foreword, is not to provide collectors with a training in conservation but, rather “sets out to explain some of the procedures which may be attempted by the non-specialist exercising due caution”. Cleaning antlers, for example, needs a conservation-grade detergent, antlers with rough surfaces should be gently dusted with a brush and vacuumed, and should the antler in question be attached to a head, you will need to protect it against insect attack.

The book is in two sections; materials and objects. A long list of materials includes japanned and lacquered objects, ceramics, textiles and wood, and objects are as diverse as bicycles and mosaics.

Each section deals with problems, handling and display, cleaning, maintenance and repair. Interesting is the coverage of paper, prints, drawings and manuscripts, which includes a photograph of some of John Windham II’s books in the library of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk; these date from the 18th century and reflect Windham’s wide-ranging interests in military drill, wood-turning and fireworks.

Throughout this book there is much mention of the necessity of using a conservator, particularly on repair work, but one is allowed to clean a wall painting by removing any dust with a clean, soft cloth to direct the dust into a vacuum cleaner, taking care “not to let the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner touch the paint”.

First published in 1987, this book has a good reading list, sound advice on the causes of deterioration on antiques and the slowing down of that decay... unless, of course you are Shark.