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2016-10-20 Sistine Ceiling Secret of Michelangelo Alexander Eliot
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Sistine Ceiling, Before and After Restoration: Looking Back In Order To Look Forward.

Ruth Osborne

Several years ago, ArtWatch helped produce a film on the changes that occurred when the Sistine Chapel ceiling underwent restoration in 1980-1994.

It considers the frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarroti before and after the massive restoration treatment. We would like to share with you some outtakes of the film that we believe may enlighten viewers to the importance of considering how a work is treated when restored, as well as paying attention to its care post-restoration. ArtWatch UK has recently provided studies on these new developments here and here. For the full film, click here: “ArtWatch: The Scandal Behind Art Restoration” (2005)

What is most compelling are the interviews of those who had seen the frescoes up-close and personal before 1980 – artist Frank Mason and writers Alexander and Jane Eliot. Have a look at the clip posted above, as well as the Eliots’ 1967/68 documentary The Secret of Michelangelo below, which provides unique coverage of the ceiling before treatment. Artists may not have been consulted before the 1980s-90s restoration, and no condition reports were done to address the particular needs and options for treatment. But now, though it’s taken 20 years, the artistic and broader public are now more aware of how significantly restoration can alter and damage a work of art irreversibly. Perhaps, with the current concerns over increasing atmospheric pollution, overcrowding, and visibility amidst deterioration, those responsible for this expansive work will reconsider such reckless techniques. For the book that takes an extensive look at this and other restoration damages, Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and The Scandal (1996), copies are available via our New York office or here.

 

The Power – and Danger – of Attributions.

Ruth Osborne
2015-03-05 - Triumph of David Villanova restoration

Triumph of David removed for conservation treatment. Courtesy: Villanova University.

In the fall of 2013, a badly-damaged 17th century painting attributed to Pietro da Cortona (known for his frescoed ceiling at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome), was exhumed from the microfiche storage room of Villanova’s library. The work, entitled Triumph of David, has been undergoing a two-year $100,000 conservation effort ever since.

On Villanova’s website, the September 2013 press release about the treatment campaign says the painting is “by 17th century Italian artist Pietro da Cortona,” while a December 2014 report in The Washington Times praising the effort states twice that the painting is only attributed to the Baroque master.

2015-03-05 - Pietro da Cortona Villanova

Conservators setting up canvas for x-rays. Courtesy: Villanova University.

In media coverage of art conservation, scientific methods are often promoted  as a way to return the canvas to an “original,” more “authentic” state. In this view, conservation is a truth-finding mission that serves to uncover enlightening facts for public benefit. As such, works can be subjected to treatment in the lab solely for this purpose – for the promise of discoveries beneath the surface (such as with the man found beneath the Picasso at the Philips Collection last summer). The danger of this emphasis on truth-finding is that finding the more “authentic” state of a work does not necessarily protect its physical well-being. It is also misleading, as works can exist in multiple states throughout their history, and thus it is up to the present conservator to judge which is the best state to which the work must be returned. But can it even be truly returned, as if history had never happened? The work will still be altered by the conservator with whatever solvents or lasers that change the chemical structure of the work to remove varnish, dirt, and bad in-painting that retrieve the preferred aesthetic condition. These and other issues are discussed by conservator Dr. Salvador Muñoz-Viñas in his Contemporary Theory of Conservation (2005).

A Villanova blog following the restoration project of the Triumph of David continues to assert Cortona’s authorship, while the above mentioned press release emphasizes the uniqueness of the large work in Cortona’s proven oeuvre:

“Only a handful of collections in the world contain works on canvas by this artist, and for an American collection to possess a painting of this magnitude attributed to Pietro da Cortona is even more uncommon.”

A comment from Villanova’s Vice President for Academic Affairs proudly proclaims the wider benefits of this treatment for art historical scholarship:

“Not only will the restoration be a workshop on the techniques of conservation for the artistic community, it will also be a classroom for students and faculty alike to discover the riches of this artist and the methods of bringing back to life a great masterpiece.”

Being able to attach a legitimate name like Cortona’s to the canvas would indeed make it a work of large renown within the artist’s surviving oeuvre.  When interviewed, the head conservator and chemist involved in the treatment only refer to “the artist,” not Cortona himself. Attributed works, it seems, can turn into confirmed works at the hands of an eager press, almost like a game of art historical telephone.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kathy Boccella writes that Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carl Strehlke was rather uncertain of the painting’s authorship, while head conservator Kristin DeGhetaldi related that Cortona’s “vibrant blues, lovely colors, beautiful skies” do not appear on the canvas. Further uncertainties about the work include: its history/provenance before the donor acquired it in the 1930s upon moving to Castle Nemi near Rome, and precisely how it was transported to the United States after having suffered damages during WWII.

2015-03-05 - Leonardo d'Este

Leonardo’s drawing of d’Este (left) with attributed painting (right). Courtesy: The Telegraph.

If anything is to be made of note here, it is that there is great power that can be wielded by assertive attributions.

When newly-discovered works are attributed to well-known artists, as in the case of the Triumph of David, public relations crazes can heat up and make assumptions not backed by solid scholarly research or historic documentation. Thus, works can easily slip into an artist’s oeuvre without much question of its validity in the public mind. Case in point: Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti’s denied attribution of the uncovered portrait of Isabella d’Este in a Swiss bank vault. Or, an attribution that is just beginning to be questioned, that of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s pair of bronzes to Michelangelo. When an attribution is, all too often, simply taken as fact and not questioned by the media, the story runs away from the scholar actually doing the work. And then, when anything new comes to light to reverse an attribution, the fanfare of the exhibition or publication that happened decades ago has easily been forgotten, but what is done to right the artist’s oeuvre in public memory?

2015-03-05 - Michelangelo bronzes Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

Pair of bronzes at the Fitzwilliam. Courtesy: Michel Jones/The Fitzwilliam Museum.

2005-10-11 - Fondazione CittàItalia Leonardo The Last Supper ad

Art Restoration and Advertising

2005-10-11 - Fondazione CittaItalia

A new advertising campaign was announced in August, aimed at raising money to fund upcoming restoration projects. The non-profit agency Fondazione CittàItalia (founded 2003) has scheduled its second such initiative, called “The Days of Art — Fundraising Campaign for the Restoration of Italian Cultural Heritage”, set to run from 24 September to 2 October 2005. It will feature “shock” ads, showing famous works of art in badly damaged states, to encourage public donations.

The website for the organization employs numerous questionable devices to solicit donations. With the slogan “Restoring Art is as Important as Making It,” donors are asked to vote for the object they’d most like to see restored — a somewhat dubious methodology if the goal is to restore the work most in need. There are also lottery tickets distributed when donations are made, so that donors can win prizes for giving. One Euro donations can even be made by text-messaging from a cell phone.

The serious matter of restoration is increasingly becoming a subject of media campaigns. We’ve long grown accustomed to posters and exhibitions exhorting art lovers to come see the “new” Masaccio, the “new” Giotto, or the “new” Michelangelo. The sad fact is now the commercialization of art restoration is expanding, and more and more we are becoming aware of restoration as a big business industry.

The advertising campaign itself is remarkably deceptive. According to CittàItalia, the purpose of their organization is to raise money to help those objects that are neglected and off-the-beaten-path. It has been reported that the Italian government will spend 26 million Euro on restoration and conservation in the coming year, and supposedly twice this amount is needed.

To encourage donations, ads will show Michelangelo’s David missing a leg, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus torn, and the Leaning tower of Pisa missing. Yet there are two major problems with such a campaign. The first is that it capitalizes on what is already a serious problem in the world of modern restoration, which is that private citizens and organizations primarily contribute to the restoration of only the most famous works of art. The second, related to the first, is that none of the objects used in the advertisements are in need of restoration.

For example, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was cleaned in 1987, and the hotly contested restoration of Michelangelo’s David was completed just last year, so neither work will likely benefit from any fund-raising. In addition, although it was discovered that David has a weak ankle, the project was merely cosmetic, and did nothing to ensure the longevity of the work.

Leonardo’s Last Supper is likewise not in need of any cleaning, having undergone a 20-year procedure ending in 1999. In an almost comical twist, a CittàItalia ad featuring Leonardo’s famous work shows Christ’s face obliterated, which was actually what occurred as a result of the last restoration, necessitating a modern repainting of the central figure’s visage. The Leaning Tower has also been restored repeatedly, and in the 1990s, although no ad will tell you that the previous restoration campaigns put the famous campanile in serious jeopardy in the first place.

So will David break a leg if you don’t donate? Will Leonardo’s Jesus lose his face? No. In fact, history has shown that damage will be more likely if you do so.

2005-10-11 - The Last Supper Christ before and after

2005-02-10 - Michelangelo David head

DAVID MANIA!!!

James Beck

A recent trip to Florence’s Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David  brought back the memory of a quote by Franca Falletti, Director of the Museum: “But we couldn’t bear to commercialize David.

2005-02-10 - Michelangelo David head
Well, turns out the Accademia can bear to commercialize the David, and do it to excess.  In an ongoing and prolonged celebration of the 500th anniversary of its installation (2004), the museum’s gift shop has been re-vamped and re-stocked with a new collection of objects.  From two large kiosks, one at the entrance and another at the exit, t-shirts, books, postcards, calendars and coffee mugs proclaimed the celebration of “David Mania.”

With more than one million tourists visiting the David each year, the Accademia certainly has the mania it wants.  So much so, that after the much contested and unnecessary cleaning of 2003-2004, the museum is now planning to install what is described as a “wall of air” around the statue to protect the statue from its fans.

2004-12-09 Michelangelo Medici tombs San Lorenzo

Honoring Agnese Parronchi

“On the evening of December 8th, 2004, ArtWatch International presented its annual Frank Mason Prize to Agnese Parronchi, the Italian restorer. She resigned from the project to restore Michelangelo’s David rather than carry out the cleaning in a manner demanded by the authorities at the Accademia, which she considered injurious to the 500-year-old sculpture. Previous winners of the prestigious award include art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich, critic Alexander Eliot, and restorer Leonetto Tintori.

The citation was read by Professor James Beck of Columbia University, Founder and President of ArtWatch:

Agnese Parronchi is a rare example of a conflation of two worlds, that of the creative artist, as a sculptor, and that of a respectful conservator of the art she loves. Trained in Florence, for centuries the territory where art flourished, she graduated from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, one of Italy’s two national restoration institutes, having specialized in the treatment of sculpture. Over the past twenty years, Agnese Parronchi has been entrusted with some of the finest marble sculpture located in Tuscany — Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance, and among her accomplishments have been the base of the Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini and a classical group, both in the Loggia dei Lanzi. She is world-renowned as an expert on the work of Michelangelo, employing her understanding of the artist to treat several of his earliest works, including the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, both located in the Casa Buonarroti, significantly in Michelangelo’s house.

The result of her cleaning of the sculpture of the Medici Tombs in San Lorenzo is a triumph of restraint, patience and respect for the intention of the creator and for the intervention of time.

 

2004-12-09 Michelangelo Medici tombs San LorenzoWhen the Superintendent of Art in Florence assigned her to treat Michelangelo’s David, an awesome project on every level, those who might have wished that the Gigante be left alone were satisfied that there would be no danger to the integrity of the statue posed by Agnese Parronchi. It would be the crowning jewel of her life’s work, which would give her the kind of world recognition she had earned. When the Florentine officials wanted to impose upon her a very vigorous treatment which included the use of solvents, she did the impossible. She resigned, refusing to carrying out a cleaning which she considered too severe.

If there is any meaning to ArtWatch’s mission and the prerequisites of the Frank Mason Prize, it is precisely the preservation of the dignity of art, and Agnese’s actions are exemplary. At great personal sacrifice, she chose to maintain her standards rather than participate in an activity which she believed to be harmful to one of the greatest icons of western culture.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Art Students League New York
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ArtWatch International 12th Annual Meeting (Arts Student League of New York)

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Art Students League New York

The Art Students League on W. 57th St. in Manhattan

Please join us for our 12th annual meeting,
Wednesday, December 8th at 6:00 PM,
Art Students League,
215 West 57th Street, NYC

Dear ArtWatcher,

It is ironic that more money is raised to finance unnecessary cleanings and the ‘sprucing up’ of famous objects to the absolute neglect of monuments desperately in need of critical intervention and conservation. For more than a year ArtWatch battled the aggressive and pricey cleaning of Michelangelo’s David, located indoors at Florence’s Accademia. When the intervention was proposed, several organizations and celebrities stepped up to contribute large sums of money for the project. Consequently, the Accademia — in order to justify the allocated funds — opted for an excessive cleaning (that is to say, an excessive spending). In the end, they saw to it that the donors got their money’s worth.

Meanwhile, only blocks away from the crowds lining up to see the newly cleaned David, another major monument is literally disintegrating. For years, the roof of Santissima Annunziata has been leaking from rainwater, resulting in calcium deposits that have leached through the architectural trompe-l’oeil decoration of the entire tribune and transept vaults. Despite the need for urgent attention, the Florentine city council has announced that they do not have the funds to make necessary repairs, which would account for a full quarter of their annual budget. This is not a new problem, but one that has been ongoing for many years and had been observed by ArtWatch already in the summer of 2002. There is no mistake that the “David dollars” would have better spent at the Annunziata. Had the matter been addressed in its early phase or as a maintenance issue, then perhaps lesser budgetary allocations could have minimized what is now a serious problem. And this is but one example.

It is all about media and hype. In this respect ArtWatch believes that the flagrant misuse of funds for the cleaning of the David is not unlike the recent purchase by the London National Gallery of the so-called Raphael Madonna of the Pinks. Although there are as many as 48 different versions of the picture, the National Gallery purchased one which has only been known since the 19th century belonging to the Duke of Northumberland. More than half of the record 60 million dollar cost came from tax abatements and public funds, obtained by the National Gallery by pulling the public’s heartstrings and arguing that this work should remain in the country.

Despite all of this, ArtWatch is making a difference. Our effort opposing the cleaning of the David resulted in an intervention that was decidedly less severe than that which had been planned, and thus our campaign must be regarded as a success. Beyond this, there is a lot more art to save.

ArtWatch needs your help. We are unique in our mission since there is no other organization that seeks to protect cultural heritage on this level. This mission can be accomplished, but we need your membership and contributions to carry on the work. Donations can be made by credit card on this website, or by checks mailed to ArtWatch, c/o Prof. James Beck, 826 Schermerhorn, Columbia University, New York, NY, 10027.

Sincerely,
James Beck

ArtWatch gratefully acknowledges the support of the Bunnelle Charitable Trust, the Dino Olivetti Foundation, Inc., the Peace Foundation, the Charles H. Stout Foundation, the Friends of ArtWatch, and all of our individual donors.

2004-09-28 Vatican Rome

Restoration Planned for Pauline Chapel

2004-09-28 Vatican Rome

The Vatican has recently announced plans to restore Michelangelo’s last frescoes in the pope’s private chapel beginning this fall. The two large paintings that are the target of the planned intervention are the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. Francesco Buranelli, the head of the Vatican Museums, has announced that they are currently seeking sponsors for the four-year project, the cost of which they estimate at about $3.6 million. Restored last in the 1930s, it has been reported that they are plagued by leaks in the wall, although they have not been photographed since the 1980s.

Critique on Restoration Methods

Mona Lisa (on the left and hypothetical restoration on the right)

Mona Lisa (left and hypothetical restoration on the right)

A word on the practice of removing old restorations on paintings.

One of the least defensible and intellectually questionable concepts raised in the often vitriolic debates surrounding art restoration practice over the past few decades is that of “readability.” A a vague and shifting goal, it continues to be advocated, especially by the museums and state officials around the world. Apparently readability rests at the foundation of French restoration policy. For example, M. Jean-Pierre Mohen conservateur général du patrimoine, directeur du Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France is an unequivocal advocate of readability. (cf. Le Monde des Debats, Septembre, 2000). He states in no uncertain terms: ” La lisibilité devient donc une notion extrêmement important: elle est garante de la part d’authenticité de l’oeuvre, de son état de conservation et de sa capacité a transmettre son message esthetique el culturel.”

If one were to suggest that a Bach Cantata should be transposed and reconstructed to make it “listenable” to a wide audience, many would find the proposition unacceptable. The same might be said of remaking T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland so that the poem would become “understandable” to neophytes and school children. The situation surrounding a painting from the past is rather different in one crucial aspect, however. Re-writing Bach’s musical score for a new redaction or Elliot’s poetic structure for another less complex one does not affect the original text. The correct, uncorrupted text is still there and can always be consulted. Such is not the case with a painting which has been made more readable. The restoration operation requires that making the object more readable be conducted on the original, unique and only text itself.

How does a restorer go about achieving M. Mohen’s much treasured readable image you might quite reasonably ask? Generally speaking any old varnish is removed along with “dirt” from the surface of the painting. In the nature of things, varnish often darkens in time and can turn warm in tone. Of course the removal of such varnishes with solvents can strip the picture of the often admired natural patina achieved over time. Besides, removing one layer on the surface does not guarantee that the layer beneath is not affected.

Restorers almost automatically remove old restorations from a painting. In their place, they tend, in differing degrees, to replace them with modern corrections, under the assumption that we moderns are better at guessing what the correct appearance should be. Usually, too, there is an effort to make the colors themselves more vivid. In consequence the painting becomes increasingly more accessible and attractive to the public. In the process of restoration, especially when readability is the key standard, outlines, edges, contours, which help define the imagery, are reinforced. Even if the original is relatively readable, it can be made more readable. And in areas where the original surface has been lost over the centuries, the restorer repaints them without compunction, in the name of readability. All this happened at the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes are today definitely more readable than they were before 1980. To be sure critics and artists have found that the imagery appears to be too much like highly readable Walt Disney illustrations.

Even if the culture could decide what might be acceptable standards of readability, arguably an impossible exercise anyway, will those standards remain the same in 5 years, 10 or 20? Tastes change, as art styles do, and sometimes very fast. One thing is certain in the history of art restoration: experts can quite confidently identify the restoration of one period from another. Thus the time and taste behind the treatment is left indelibly on the unique text.

The concept of readability appears to encompass another characteristic: an aura of democratization. The art object needs to be made assessable to the lowest common denominator. The notion is similar to the one behind Classic Comics, where Dante’s Inferno or the Holy Bible is cartoon-ized for school children. Or consider those nefarious summaries of Moby Dick, The Raven, or Hamlet condensed into several dozen easy-to-understand pages. The process is known today as “dumbing down.”

Readability harbors an hidden agenda: tourism. The tourist industry is one of the leading business of the grandest cities in Europe and America and in places like Paris, New York and Rome, it represents the single greatest income producer for the local economy. In order to make the art palpable to mass tourism, the assumption is that the art objects should be readable, so that the visitors are satisfied in their rushed visits to the Louvre, the Met, the Uffizi. That is interpreted to mean that the paintings must be bright and shinny, and the sculpture scrubbed and sandblasted. In this way, the thinking implies, visitors may wish to return and tell their friends about the marvels they saw.

One cannot forget that restoration is carried out by skillful artisans, steady hands, and the activity being in the final analysis is not science but craft, for want of a better word. Whether in the cleaning stage at the beginning or in the reintegration or repainting stage at the end, the crucial factor is the manual ability and good judgment of the operators. And if the superintendents and museums directors want readability, they can get it only from these individuals, who being human, interpret the pictorial surface, evaluate what clues there are, and make a product which is regarded by the officials as “readable.” This does not even imply that the result is, somehow, correct, original, accurate, or in harmony with the artistic statement of its creator, but merely that it is “readable.” An application of the “readability” approach is the recently completed Last Supper in Milan. Finally, you could say, after centuries of confusion the mural is readable; but the problem is that it is false. As little as 20 percent of what you see is by Leonardo da Vinci and the rest has been painted by the restorers, including the crucial head of Christ which is a highly readable image, datable to circa 1998.

Even bringing the theories of the sacred cow of modern restoration is not necessarily useful nor a legitimate claim to right reason when it comes to modern restorations. The notions of Cesare Brandi, who was neither a scientist nor a restorer but an art historian developed his ideas over 70 years ago. After all if you were to cling to a theory of aviation before the introduction of the jet, or of energy before the atomic revolution, or medicine before antibiotics, the subsequent discussion would prove to be irrelevant to a contemporary situation. When it comes to art restoration there is a far better, safer and more accurate solution to the “readability” requirement, so dear to the official French position. And it is one which preserves the integrity of the original art work at the same time that it employs modern technology.

In order to give the viewer, whether a sophisticated one, a beginner, or a school child, a tangible impression of the art of the past as well as the probable intention of creating artists, I propose that state-of-the-art computer technology be employed to generate to-scale facsimiles and that these be placed side-by-side with the “originals” when they are not very “readable.” This idea surfaced publicly a few years ago when French authorities were considering a thorough cleaning of the Mona Lisa. Complaints had come from museum experts and arts scholars alike over the appearance of the painting, with its darkened, discolored varnish. It was, in effect, difficult to read, and many opined how wonderful it would be to see it freshened up. Good sense prevailed, however, with the recognition that the surface was so delicate and that Leonardo’s process so fragile that losses could have occurred in the restoration. The suggestion was put forward in some quarters to produce a facsimile as one imagines the original appeared. In this way a viable imagine could be offered to the public and for educational purposes, at the same time that tampering with such a basic creation would effectively be avoided.

In fact, the possibility of showing carefully produced scale facsimiles should put an end to the readability alternative with all its built-in threats to the authenticity of the work and the wide margin of error in interpretation. In this way, the text is maintained, never repainted nor brightening up on the basis of one reading or another, even the most qualified. The original remains there and merely requires maintenance. The interpretations, which are inseparable ingredients of restoration, would be limited to the facsimile and could readily be changed from time to time, as our knowledge expands. Under any circumstance it would be more “correct” than any dangerous and essentially experimental treatment of the unique original and would better guarantee the aims of the Restoration Establishment. Let us once and for all eliminate from practice the pernicious and inherently dangerous notion of readability, as outmoded.

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Letter to the Mayor of Florence: Michelangelo’s “Victory”

In an open letter to the Mayor of Florence, ArtWatch is calling for an immediate halt to the restoration of Michelangelo’s statue group known as “Victory”.

James Beck June 22, 1998

Dear Honorable Mr. Mayor,

On behalf of ArtWatch International, Inc. and its affiliate in Italy, ArtWatch Italia, I am asking at this time for an immediate halt to the projected restoration of Michelangelo’s sculpture group known as Victory, presently in Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone dei Cinquecento. In our opinion the matter is most urgent because scaffolding have already been constructed around the sculpture, making it ready for the intervention.

ArtWatch, a watchdog organization with nearly 1000 associates worldwide, has taken a stand against drastic and/or unnecessary treatments of our artistic treasures. Activity on the Victory should be halted until information about the projected intervention is made public. Among the points that require full disclosure are:

  1. an explanation of the assumed need for such an intervention or treatment at all;
  2. the goals for the intervention and what is hoped to be attained;
  3. the proposed methodology of the intervention, i.e. what techniques are planned, for example, with the restores use scalpels, mico-sand blasters, lasers, chemicals?

Once the data is made available ArtWatch also calls upon the Mayor to organize an open public debate, preferable in the Salone dei Cinquecento, in which international experts on Michelangelo, specialists devoted to Renaissance sculpture and Italian Renaissance art in general, specialists on marble restoration, as well as all interested parties may participate. ArtWatch believes that, as in the field of medicine, second and third opinions are essential before a restoration is undertaken. In fact, sometimes the most effective cure has been to leave the patient alone. ArtWatch makes these requests on the basis of the operative assumption that works of art of the caliber of Michelangelo’s Victory do not, strictly speaking, belong to the city of Florence, nor, to the government of Italy, but ultimately belong to the entire world, and that the city and state officials in charge are guardians whose role it is to preserve the objects in their trust for future generations. To take any action in relative secrecy is effectively a violation of that trust.

Thanking you for attention to this matter, I am Sincerely Yours,

(signed James Beck)