Balancing ethics and restoration in the conservation treatment of an 18th century sewing box with tortoiseshell veneer

Lori Trusheim


The AIC Code of Ethics provides a framework for professional conduct in treatment decision making, and it is a universal understanding among conservators that a conservation treatment should not entail the removal of original material. However, what is the ethical approach to a treatment when an object is so badly damaged that the only way to recover the artist’s original intent is to remove original material? Is it ever acceptable to deconstruct in order to reconstruct?

This fundamental challenge was encountered during the conservation treatment of a Palais Royal sewing box dating to the 18th century. The box is fabricated from wood and decorated overall with tortoiseshell veneer, of which the top panel contains carved mother-of-pearl inlay. Owned by a private collector in Maryland, the box held deep sentimental value to the collector and his family. Unfortunately, the box had sustained damage resulting in dimensional changes to the wood substrate as well as splitting, warping and significant loss of tortoiseshell veneer and associated mother-of-pearl inlay. More specifically, over one quarter of the tortoiseshell veneer with inlay on the top panel was missing, completely destroying any semblance of the original appearance. The dimensional changes to the tortoiseshell created jagged edges and protruding points that put the object at greater risk for loss.

The initial treatment involved stabilization, loss compensation and as much in situ flattening of the tortoiseshell as possible. The angles of the tortoiseshell cleavage combined with the location of the inlay and dimensional changes of the wood substrate inhibited a satisfactory result in flattening the veneer, but the treatment stayed within the ethical guidelines for our profession. The client, however, was not satisfied with the outcome and requested further treatment to bring the sewing box closer to its original appearance.

This paper will explain the decision making process employed to navigate this complicated treatment. Topics to be covered include: manufacturing techniques for tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl inlay specific to this box; overview of structural and chemical features of tortoiseshell; loss compensation techniques for tortoiseshell veneer; the role of AIC code of ethics in the conservation treatment process, and discussion of conservator conduct in relation to client expectations for restoration as part of the conservation treatment.

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2011 | Philadelphia | Volume 18