Beloved treasures: Assessing the effects of long-term display on models containing wax

Suzanne Hargrove and Marissa Stevenson


Artworks made of dissimilar materials pose a conservation challenge that requires a multi-faceted approach to treatment and long-term care. The Toledo Museum of Art’s collection of 78 historical costume figures exemplifies this challenge. The 24″ tall figures were dressed by prominent Parisian couturier Jacques Doucet on models fabricated by artisans at the Limoges and Sevres porcelain factories in 1915. They are attired in elaborate costumes and exhibit the same attention to detail as Doucet’s full-scale garments. As such the models are complex creations made from a variety of materials including flesh fabricated from wax lined with plaster, human hair wigs, and clothing embellished with feathers, glass, early plastic, metal, leather, fur, paper and paint. They are three-dimensional representations of figures depicted in prints, paintings, fashion journals, and theatre actresses popular in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Purchased by the Toledo Museum of Art founder, Edward Drummond Libbey, the figures were nicknamed the “Libbey Dolls” and became an immediate patron favorite.

As beloved objects, the “Libbey Dolls” were continuously displayed from their acquisition in 1917 until the late 1970’s. The objects were adversely affected by the damaging environmental effects from light, early casework design, mounts, and fluctuating environmental conditions common to museums in the early to mid 20th century. Light damage in particular has resulted in fading, embrittlement, and fracturing of the wax flesh, textiles, and accoutrements.

A conservation assessment indicated the wax features were particularly problematic due to discoloration, cracking, fracturing, loss and old restorations that were visually distracting. As wax is inherently a difficult material to treat, it was considered to be the greatest conservation challenge. This paper focuses on the treatment of the wax elements and their relationship to the other materials comprising the dolls. The wax will be characterized for composition with an aid to understanding deterioration mechanisms as well as methods of fabrication. Treatment options will be explored for removal of surface grime, consolidation, repair, reintegration and replacement of missing wax components. Further recommendations for storage, stabilization and display will be reviewed including implications of how this research will benefit other particularly problematic artworks made of similar materials in the museum collection.

2015 | Miami | Volume 22