Paintings and their silent killer: protect your artworks from fading with age

You’ve built up a magnificent art collection and want to show it off to best effect. But be careful to keep your pieces safe from the ravages of light.

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In each of the luxury flats he’s building in Stratford, east London, developer and art collector Harry Handelsman – the man who restored the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel – has ensured there is at least one wall big enough for a huge artwork, even in the studios. 

Art looks great, lifts the spirit, and often rises in value, making it something which – if you love it – is always worth buying.

What’s more, London is the art centre of the world with treasures to be found  everywhere from exhibitions showcasing “finals” by students whom canny collectors can invest in at the beginning of their career, through art fairs such as Masterpiece in June and Frieze in October, to the great auction houses such as Bonhams, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s.

But once you’ve bought a painting, you need to look after it. Keeping it safe from burglars is obvious, but that’s not the only threat. Sunlight damages delicate watercolours, which should be hung out of direct light, or kept in a drawer or folder (which is how they used to be stored).

But watercolours aren’t the only things at risk – light damages most paint, including oil and acrylic, and not always how you’d expect. All visible light causes slow “radiant damage”, which ranges from colour-fading to embrittlement and flaking, because light is radiant (heat-producing) energy.

But it’s the rays humans can’t see — ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) —which damage paintings fastest. Fast radiant damage is caused by IR whereas UV causes “photochemical” damage — altering pigment at a molecular level.

So to protect your artworks, keep them out of direct sunlight wherever possible, and fit windows with UV-resistant glass (which is safer for your skin, too). Modern laminated glass can protect against UV as well as being argon-filled to save energy; and it’s stronger than a single pane.

When lighting paintings, LED lights, which emit almost no UV (unlike fluorescent or halogen), cause the least harm; but still switch off when you leave the room. If you’re lucky enough to own a penthouse with big white walls, you’ll have plenty of space for hanging; but some modern collectors add an extra wall to show off even more art; or create a collection room, like a private gallery. Here you can really look after light levels, light-types and positioning, and control the optimal humidity for the art you love.

This article was brought to you in association with Hiscox Home Insurance, providers of expert cover for valued homes, art and high-value items. Visit to find out more.

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