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“The Surgeon of Basel“
Written by Juan Carlos Perez-Duthie.

So you pull a Steve Wynn. You know, the insanely mega-rich Las Vegas mogul who last October elbowed his way into a Picasso painting, tearing through the canvas. A $139 million canvas.

Who are you going to call? To fix this kind of damage, there are perhaps a handful of people worldwide you can count on. One of the best is art conservator Gloria Velandia. With 22 years of experience, she has been Art Basel Miami Beach's Chief Conservator and Restorer since 2002.

Disaster can strike at any time, and lots of money, reputations, and ego are at stake. Velandia, the fixer, is one woman everyone there is happy to see.

"I started working the same day I got in, on the 29th," remembers the 41-year-old Velandia who, no matter how hurried, never loses her composure. She'll be at her "lab" in the Miami Beach Convention Center all week, surrounded by brushes, pigments, solvents, rulers, knives and much more. "I went Paris [her official residence], New York and then Miami, with a ton of equipment and materials in my baggage. And I already have some 30 pieces to work on."

One of these, an enormous (4 meters by 7 meters) $350,000 painting whose artist shall remain nameless (Velandia is as discrete as she is charming), has developed a nasty case of mildew, and it's up to her to treat the very costly patient.

"The art comes by plane or by ship. Then it is transported in 18-wheelers. But, during the time it sits in the docking area or in the trucks, if it's very humid, mildew can appear in no time," says the Bogota, Colombia-born Velandia, with degrees in fine arts, chemistry and painting conservation. "If, for example, the crate in which a painting comes is wet, you will see the growth of bacteria and spots."

For that, Velandia chemically treats the work with substances that will neutralize the canvas's PH and stop the damage done by the mildew and bacteria.

Velandia (whose services have been employed by the Library of Congress and The National Gallery of Art), once did all the work alone at Art Basel Miami Beach. Until last year, when she got an assistant, Puerto Rican painter Hector Maldonado. This year, she not only got Maldonado back, but now has four other people working with her, including her boyfriend for the past two years, Steven Ludmer, who comes from the corporate world and is aiding in all the administrative and financial duties.

That leaves Velandia with a bit more time to concentrate on the restoration and conservation of the artwork, and on the condition reports she has to file for each piece she tackles.

"It is my ethical duty, my obligation, to disclose whenever work has been done on a piece, so as not to cheat the customers, and to protect the integrity of the art," explains Velandia. "The gallery owner also has to do the same. Then I file a condition report where I document what was performed."

No matter how small the defect may appear in the eyes of a prospective buyer, there is no minor damage for Velandia, since any defect can change the pricing of the artwork.

Even the smallest damage affects the value of the piece. So imagine not a mere scratch or a nick, but bigger mishaps.

"Last year, a forklift crashed against a crate, and punctured a canvas," remembers Velandia. "It happened twice. This year, we haven't had a forklift incident, but a painting does have a huge hole from an enormous wood stake. Nobody knows where that came from."

So far, no affected piece has proven impossible to fix, but at the same time, she explains that the repair never restores the object to its original state.

"It is impossible to make it just like it was," she states. "After we diagnose the piece, we treat the problem according to its origins. We guarantee that everything we do is reversible, so that the nature of the piece is not forever changed."

After Art Basel Miami Beach, Velandia is off to Los Angeles, where she will treat a piece against ultraviolet radiation for a private collector, and then to New York (where she's planning on settling next year), to finish the details of "Ashes and Snow," an exhibition of photographic artworks by Canadian photographer and filmmaker Gregory Colbert, that is headed for Tokyo.

Oh, and going back to Wynn and his Picasso: The tab for getting it fixed? $85,000.

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