Spanish conservation experts call for tighter regulation on art restoration: a classic example of how overregulation begins

A recent attempt to restore a piece of art has drawn controversy due to the poor quality of work. Recently, a private collector in Valencia was charged €1,200 by a restorer to work on an original painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. But despite the two attempts to store the painting to its original job, the painting was left unrecognizable.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s original work (left) and two attempts at restoring a copy of it. (The Guardian)

This incident has brought some recollection of another restorative attempt that did not go as planned. Eight years ago, a devout parishioner tried to restore a Jesus Christ painting which did not go well. The end result was nicknamed “Monkey Christ.”

Original painting (left) and two attempts at restoration

Calls for tight regulation

The series of events has led to a group of Spanish conservation experts to call for tight regulations regarding work restoration. The group is emphasizing the need for restoration to be only carried out by professionals. According to some of these conservationists, restoration should be carried out only by trained restorers.

Like anyone, I would agree that these are both poor restorations of important pieces of history. But regulation is not the solution to getting rid of poor quality services. This is a classic example of how misguided notions about what regulation accomplishes lead to the overregulation of an industry.

The market has mechanisms for regulating quality

If you are like any human being, you would think twice about going to a restaurant that provides poor quality service. Everyone would. It serves our best interests to seek out goods and services from skilled providers; ones that meet our standards of quality. This is not particular to certain industries.

So it is highly unlikely that any person wishing to have their art restored would go to either of the above art restorers. Having seen their work, most would be unlikely to solicit services from these people. Regulation is, therefore, not needed to make people avoid providers who do unsatisfactory work.

Regulation is there just to kill competition

Consider the following argument by a former president of Spain’s Professional Association of Restorers and Conservators (ACRE) who said the law currently allows people to engage in restoration projects even if they lacked the necessary skills:

“Can you imagine just anyone being allowed to operate on other people? Or someone being allowed to sell medicine without a pharmacist’s licence? Or someone who’s not an architect being allowed to put up a building?”

This is usually the case for regulation: it has to do with protecting customers. The person making the argument, however, is rarely ever a customer but someone that stands to benefit from restrictions in the industry. In this case, both conditions stand. Time and time again, extreme comparisons like these have been drawn by providers who want to restrict entrants into their industry, thereby killing competition.

How likely is it that anyone would hire an architect with no credentials and no past work to show? And how likely is it that a hospital would hire a surgeon without checking their education degree, medical certification, and work history? Both are extremely unlikely. These are high-risk occupations and they warrant being treated accordingly. The risk that an unskilled art restorer poses to society is minuscule compared to the risk of a pharmacist who conducts business without the necessary skill or knowledge.

The government rarely stops at one rule

Some of the proponents for regulation have emphasized the fact that this does not have to be full-blown regulation. For instance, ACRE’s  president has expressed this idea:

“it doesn’t have to be at the very top because it’s obviously not like healthcare or employment – there are many more important things. But this is our history.”

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that leads to licensing every occupation in the book. People calling for licenses start with tiny demands that enlarge over time. And the government is no different.  Once the government requires licenses for certain occupations, these restrictions usually just get tighter and tighter with each revision. Any small act of regulation on an industry gives the government leeway to impose more and more rules.