Photograph: James Beck. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.
The remarkable mission of James Beck--to save the world's great art works from their restorers--has risen from one voice four years ago to a nationally prominent movement. Last Sunday CBS Television devoted nearly a third of its "60 Minutes" program to Beck's crusade to "stop the madness" of uninformed restorations.
"It's like a medical doctor doing an operation and not knowing the blood type," he told CBS's Morley Safer, reviewing progress of a long-term restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The work, he said, was now in greater danger than it was before the restorer began. "These are almost experiments; I don't want to experiment with Leonardo until I know exactly what I'm doing."
Beck founded ArtWatch International early in 1992 to monitor the condition of major works worldwide and evaluate proposals for their cleaning and renewal. He quickly attracted an international board of art authorities to the cause, but critics called him an "outcast," and Safer noted that he is both "revered and loathed" in Italy, where 40 percent of the world's greatest art resides. An Italian court nearly jailed him for libel in 1991 for saying that a restored sculpture looked "as if it had been treated with acid, cleaned with Spic and Span and polished with Johnson's Wax."
In the "60 Minutes" appearance, Beck charged that The Last Supper had been overcleaned, and he nearly extracted an admission from the Italian official who commissioned the restoration that he did not know whether some of Leonardo's own glazes had been removed.
Safer cut in: "But this painting belongs to this church in this city; don't they have the right to do as they please?"
"I don't believe that," said Beck shaking his head. "I think it belongs to the world."
Columbia University Record -- May 10, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 26