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Collections Research Reveals a Vanishing Technique

Published June 29, 2016
A bowl from the Seymour Collection (Marion Jewell Hays, donor) showing two distinct phases of repair. The metal clamps of the original break seen from inside the bowl have bands missing on the exterior (although the tiny drill holes are visible). The v-notch at the upper edge is a later break where some type of adhesive has been used and two clamps from the original repair are missing. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

A bowl from the Seymour Collection (Marion Jewell Hays, donor) showing two distinct phases of repair. The metal clamps of the original break seen from inside the bowl have bands missing on the exterior (although the tiny drill holes are visible). The v-notch at the upper edge is a later break where some type of adhesive has been used and two clamps from the original repair are missing. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Ding ware ewer (11th or early 12th Century CE), North China, Northern Song Dynasty. Collection of the British Museum.

Ding ware ewer (11th or early 12th Century CE), North China, Northern Song Dynasty. Collection of the British Museum.

While the public programming at the Museum of Fine Arts continues to welcome visitors, behind the scenes, the Museum staff work to add to the information known about objects in the Collection. Recently, Dr. Paul Lee was invited to examine a small Chinese ceramic bowl from the MoFA Collection that has been repaired in an unusual way.

One seeming anomaly in historic ceramics collections is the use of metal bands to re-assemble fragile broken objects. Museums with Asian collections, such as the example here from the British Museum, exhibit their objects with what might be a puzzling feature. Although cyanoacrylate (“superglue”) was patented in 1942/1951 by Dr. Harry Coover to secure slick surfaces such as jet canopies, this invention and similar adhesive formulae are deployed sparingly for any reconstructions of objects because conservators abide by the rule that all repairs should be reversible. For aesthetic and not functional purposes, something like clay-slip might join fractured surfaces: the outcome, however, is inconsistent. When we look at collections of glazed ceramics before modern archival adhesives, we sometimes run across the ingenuity of nameless technicians engaged in salvaging a work of art.

With the assistance of Dr. Paul Lee, a mystery in the MoFA Collection has been explained. The blue and white porcelain vessel had been prized by a past owner and someone—not having the range of contemporary solutions that we have—re-assembled the fragments by boring small holes into the exterior surface, then suturing the break with oval metal bands. The charm of the painting can still be appreciated despite the “staples”—while the delicacy of the repair is an amazing performance in itself. Dr. Lee states that the precision art of copper repair by Chinese street vendors has been lost in the last fifty years.

Quoting from a description by Dr. Lee: “They used a hand held diamond drill that was rotated by winding ropes on a horizontal stick, moved by hand up and down while holding the drilled piece of porcelain with the other hand.” After applying a small amount of wet clay at the interface, the vendor then “inserted the copper hook in these holes and lightly hammer-tapped it into position.”