The "priceless" work of one Chicago art conservator

Art conservator provides stroke of generosity... 02:23

Barry Bauman works out of his home in River Forest, Ill., a suburb just west of Chicago. The 67-year-old art conservator provides face-lifts to his centuries-old patients.

"When a painting first comes into me, I do an examination like any doctor would do," Bauman said.

Art conservation is an extensive process, which can include the cleaning of varnishes, the filling of holes, and the fixing of cracks. A single painting can cost thousands of dollars to conserve. Bauman does it for free.

Bauman spent more than 30 years conserving art, first at the Art Institute of Chicago, then at his own company - The Conservation Center - which he founded in 1983.

Barry Bauman

"After I sold my company 11 years ago, I came home and I told my wife, 'I think I just want to work for museums now, and I'll do it at a reduced cost,'" Bauman said. "But she was the one that said, 'Barry, why don't you do it for nothing.'"

Bauman's wife Mary said he had always expressed unhappiness that many organizations and institutions couldn't pay for art conversation due to the hefty price tag.

"When he started doing this at home and he talked about fees and whatnot, I had just told him very bluntly, 'Do it for nothing. Remember what we used to talk about,'" she said. "It was as though I flipped a switch, and this little light bulb went off in his head."

Since beginning his pro-bono work in 2004, Bauman has refurbished upwards of 1,500 paintings for around 300 institutions nationwide - an estimated savings of about $5 million. However, Bauman's services are only for nonprofit organizations including museums, historical societies, and libraries.

"These smaller museums without a conservation department, they're lucky if they can pay for the heat and lights," Bauman said. "Conservation is a luxury. They could never even contemplate that, so it's really been a joy for me to preserve cultural history for a place that could never even afford these services."

One of Bauman's favorite pieces is the portrait of Governor and General Lucius Fairchild by John Singer Sargent, which is on display at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.

Barry Bauman

Bauman has treated about 65 paintings for the Society -- a total market value of about $270,000. His work there earned him a certificate of appreciation last year from Gov. Scott Walker.

"The preservation aspect is one of the first and most important priorities we have as an organization," said Joe Kapler, the museum curator at the Wisconsin Historical Society. "These paintings will look great and be in proper condition for decades and decades."

After countless hours of work, Bauman doesn't mind that he doesn't receive any of the fame.

"When you go into a museum, no one knows who did the conversation work, and that's the way it should be," Bauman said. "It's the art object that is important."