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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Coming to you from NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

Outside of China and Taiwan, U.S. museums hold the world's best collection of Chinese paintings. It's worth billions of dollars, but it's a fragile collection. Over time, these paintings fall apart. There are only four master conservators in the country who know how to take care of these paintings, and they're all going to retire soon.

NPR's Alan Yu reports.

ALAN YU, BYLINE: Inside one of the huge stone Smithsonian museums at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., there's a softly lit room with a high ceiling. If you look to the right, you'll see a painting that's about four feet long. In it, two Chinese scholars dressed in long robes stand under a gnarled tree. There's a river and a soaring mountain range in the background. It's called Summoning The Sage At Wei River, and it's from the Ming Dynasty, making it about 500 years old.

GRACE JAN: The lighting in the museum gallery is very good, because it also helps to mask a lot of the damages.

YU: That's Grace Jan, an assistant conservator here at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in D.C.

JAN: You can see, like, there's horizontal lines that are slightly darker, and then you can see there's like kind of a vertical line down the center above the figure on the left.

YU: She says that faint black streak was once much more serious damage. These paintings weren't done with oil paints on wooden panels, like the Mona Lisa. They're painted on fragile pieces of silk or rice paper, which is why Chinese painting conservation is so important. The image we're looking at has been carefully cleaned and painted over.

The Freer has more than 2,000 Chinese paintings, and one master conservator is responsible for maintaining all of them.

JAN: We just do as minimal treatment as we can so that it doesn't jump at you when you're looking at the painting.

YU: This hanging scroll was fixed in a lab right down the hall.

XIANGMEI GU: (Chinese spoken)

YU: Behind the scenes, Xiangmei Gu is one of those four conservators who treat Chinese paintings. One of the first things she shows us is an ancient map that was torn halfway down the middle.

GU: (Chinese spoken)

YU: She says once she remounted it, it looked fine. And she's right. Even standing just inches away, I can't see where the tear used to be. It took her a long time to learn how to do this.

GU: I worked so many years - almost 40 years. Still I never finish - continue to learn this job.

YU: That's right. Forty years and she says she's still learning. She can't work forever. So the Mellon Foundation recently gave the Freer Gallery a million-dollar grant to train an assistant Chinese painting conservator. In the meantime, Xiangmei Gu is passing on her skill to Grace Jan too. Jan's parents want her to be a doctor but also told her...

JAN: If you're going to find a job, you should find one that you love but also build a skill set that no one can take away from you.

YU: She has a master's degree in conservation from New York University, and she got interested because her grandfather was also a painter.

JAN: I remember seeing his paintings turning yellow. They turned yellow after they were mounted in the next couple years.

YU: This is typical of xuan paper, the rice paper used in Chinese paintings, which is one reason why they need such special care. Here's another big reason: Chinese paintings are made to be handled. Andrew Hare, an East Asian painting conservator at the Freer, explains.

ANDREW HARE: To view, to appreciate a Chinese painting, you would have to, for example, unroll a scroll and then roll it back up. If it were an album, you'd have to open, turn the pages. And of course, when you use something over time, there's wear and tear and damage.

YU: Conserving these fragile works starts with making new backing paper. Xiangmei Gu and Grace Jan demonstrate this on a giant red lacquer table. Xiangmei Gu rolls out the paper and brushes it to make it perfectly smooth.

GU: Then you put the (unintelligible) on the papers.

YU: She says they can't afford even the slightest crease on this paper. Andrew Hare explains why:

HARE: What you do now is maybe part of the art object for the next several hundred years. So this is the only time you have - right now - to get it right.

YU: This is pretty basic, but conservators in training practice for months with newspaper before they can use the actual rice paper. Grace Jan says without spending the decades it takes to learn these skills, conservators wouldn't dream of fixing an ancient masterpiece.

JAN: It's like just, you know, sticking a Band-Aid on something and calling it done. So that's not the most effective way to treat our priceless works of art in the United States.

YU: For example, the Freer has a short scroll that's estimated to be worth $100 million, if it were ever sold. To handle cultural treasures like that, Grace Jan says she'll be learning for a lifetime. Alan Yu, NPR News.

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