Q: We have a nativity set purchased in Sri Lanka in 1991 that was one of a handful of such sets made by students at a carpentry workshop. None of the student craftsmen were Christians, and the nativity story was new to them. They had an original interpretation as they carved the figures, each from a single piece of wood from the ruk aththana tree (Alstonia scholaris). For example, among those worshiping the Christ child were Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses: Krishna, Saraswati, Ganesha and Pattini. The set has three wise men and three kings. One of the kings was knocked off the table and his head came off. How can I have the head of the king put back on his shoulders and have a complete set?
A: This is a great time to begin working on getting the king repaired so you’re sure to have him standing regally by the next Christmas season.
Because you value this set highly, and because there is a bit of mystery to it, you might want to start by consulting a conservator who specializes in repair of wooden folk objects. The American Institute for Conservation and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation offer a “find a conservator” service on their website, culturalheritage.org, that allows you to search by Zip code.
Click through on the individual names to find conservators who are in private practice and do assessments and treatments. Many conservators have emails indicating that they are on the staff of institutions such as the Smithsonian, or they specialize in offering advice about how to display collections.
A conservator could help answer an intriguing question about how your set was made. The pictures you sent show a reddish interior that’s puzzling because the type of wood you mention, from the Alstonia scholaris tree, is typically very light-colored. The tree, which is native to areas including India, southern China and Australia, produces wood with an even grain, one reason it is considered a good wood for carving. But the broken neck of the king has flecks of white. Adding to the mystery is that a tall figure would typically be carved with the wood grain running up and down. Wood is very strong in that direction, so it’s unlikely a head would break off unless the figure, for some reason, was carved with the grain going crosswise.
Conservators are trained to identify the materials in the objects they evaluate, so if you take the pieces to a conservator, you may learn that the figures are made of something else entirely, such as clay or papier-mache.
Connie Stromberg, owner of Stromberg Conservation LLC in Bethesda, Maryland, looked at the pictures you sent. “Wood grain is visible at the broken ends, but there may also be some putty or fill material there. I also think there’s some old adhesive residue on the broken ends so it’s likely been previously repaired,” she wrote in an email.
She also said “the figures could be made of wood or have some wooden parts with putty or papier mâché over the core area,” adding that she would need to see the pieces in person to be sure.
She isn’t ruling out wood, though: “I’ve often repaired wooden pieces (such as masks) that break at short grain, in other words the wood grain isn’t in the direction it should be for strength and thin areas such as necks are most vulnerable at short grain.”
Anne Kingery-Schwartz, who is in private practice in Washington, D.C., as Kingery Conservation LLC, also stressed the need to evaluate the pieces in person. For the repair, she would probably recommend gluing the pieces together, without adding anything, such as a dowel, to strengthen the joint. “Typically, we try to avoid using dowels, as it requires drilling into original material,” she wrote in an email. She said conservators have adhesives that are strong enough to repair a break without any reinforcement.
Whether you hire a conservator to make the repair or attempt to glue the parts together yourself, Kingery-Schwartz offered this suggestion: “The main thing to do is to keep the break edges in pristine condition. Don’t try to repeatedly fit the two pieces back together - even that can damage the edges. The better the fit, the stronger the repair will be, and there’s less of a chance that there will need to be a fill” to plug gaps along the break.
The cost of a professional repair will depend partly on how much touch-up work needs to be done to get the piece in the condition you want. Many conservators offer a quick, free evaluation if you bring an object to them. Before they do any work, they prepare a written evaluation and cost estimate.
Kingery-Schwartz said conservators in the Washington, D.C., area typically charge $110 to $140 per hour. Depending on the condition of the break edges, she estimated that repairing the king could take as little as three hours or as many as nine or 10. “It also depends on the goal of the treatment - to simply stabilize the piece or to address the aesthetic issues associated with the damage,” she said.
Repairing one statue in a nativity set is a tiny job for a conservator in private practice. Stromberg noted that most of her work is for museums and private or governmental institutions. “I do small jobs for private clients when there’s time around those bigger jobs, so it’s difficult to say how long it would take,” she said. “There’s certainly enough time before next holiday season though.”
But don’t wait until November.