IPARC has built a solid reputation as an art restorer. The fight against insects in works of art can become a new growth engine that also gives the company a foothold abroad.
It is not new that works of art – and it does not have to be only old works of art – are attacked by insects such as moths, silverfish, cutworms and beetles. But global warming and global art traffic are adding to the problem and making some species more resilient. IPARC (short for International Platform for Art Restoration and Conservation) uses a fully organic method of heat and controlled humidity to eliminate the insects. Founder Leen Gysen shows a room reminiscent of a freezer. “We gradually heat this room to about 50 degrees. We hold that temperature for an hour. At the same time, we keep the relative humidity constant so there is no stress on the artwork or the object. The whole process only takes 24 hours, instead of the four weeks , you need with nitrogen.”
It is not new that works of art – and it does not have to be only old works of art – are attacked by insects such as moths, silverfish, cutworms and beetles. But global warming and global art traffic are adding to the problem and making some species more resilient. IPARC (short for International Platform for Art Restoration and Conservation) uses a fully organic method of heat and controlled humidity to eliminate the insects. Founder Leen Gysen shows a room reminiscent of a freezer. “We gradually heat this room to about 50 degrees. We hold that temperature for an hour. At the same time, we keep the relative humidity constant so there is no stress on the artwork or the object. The whole process only takes 24 hours, instead of the four weeks , you need with nitrogen.” IPARC worked for six years with Thermo Lignum, the English company that developed the technology, as a partner for Benelux until Gysen took over in 2020. With that acquisition, IPARC immediately got a service center in London, and it also opened one in Berlin last year. “This year, France, Spain and Portugal are still on the agenda. That way, the technology will be within reach for everyone in Europe.” Insect control is one of IPARC’s four activities, in addition to restoration, imaging and art preservation. In the 700 square meter studio, two employees painstakingly restore two monumental paintings from Leuven’s town hall. During restoration work, dirt or previous interventions are usually cleaned, sometimes they are also damaged. On an easel stands an artwork by Koen van den Broek, ready to remove the soot left after a fire. The list of previous restorations looks impressive: works by Flemish Primitives, Jacob Jordaens, Pieter Paul Rubens, Anton Van Dyck and Paul Delvaux, paintings from the AfricaMuseum and St. Peter’s Church in Leuven and the furniture by Victor Horta of Wolfer’s jewelry store. “We not only restore paintings, but also textiles, wood, stone, metal, paper or alabaster,” says Gysen. “Sometimes we restore on site in museums or churches, for example for safety reasons.” The laboratory has an impressive range of equipment for examining and visualizing works. “We work from a strong scientific approach and make no concessions to quality and method,” says Gysen. “Using multispectral imaging and other analyses, we investigate the authenticity and dating of the works of art. The last pillar is art storage. Most works are stored for a long time in a fully air-conditioned and secured repository. Some customers’ collections move because they regularly lend the works. We make a condition report for the insurance company or a high-resolution photo for the catalog. Because we can do it all on site under one roof, we’re a one-stop shop.” Leen Gysen started IPARC almost eleven years ago together with David Lainé, Linda Temmink and Obrecht De Boer. Her previous experience at Telindus, where she worked for John Cordier and Eric Van Zele, and Bozar was a good learning experience. “When I turned 39, I wanted to start my own company that was commercially relevant, but where I could also build my own value pattern. With IPARC, I can realize that while I work day in and day out with my passion: art,” says The horror. She also knew what business she wanted to start: a cooperative. “In large structures, you can raise topics such as unequal pay, but you have little influence on them. I also had my own vision of coaching employees.” She is trained as an archaeologist and has an MBA, her husband is a restaurateur. Three motivations support IPARC. “We have good restaurateurs in Flanders, but we are careless in embedding those skills. Everyone works alone with their own specialization in a very competitive market. As a result, they are not inclined to exchange and transfer knowledge.” Another motive was the need for an interdisciplinary structure. “Restorers specialize in paintings or stone, wood or textiles. But an average contemporary work often contains three to four different materials. A supply of the interior of a church involves paintings, sculptures, furniture and textiles. Being able to put a multidisciplinary team in is a plus.” Finally, Leen Gysen found a coaching model essential so that people can grow, ask questions and make mistakes. “School students are theoretically well-educated thanks to their university master’s degrees, but have little practical experience.” Corona lockdowns hit hard at IPARC, which was named ‘SME of the Year’ in 2018 by the independent organization Unizo. The entire industry came to a standstill. “We had to let five people go”, Gysen looks back. “Suddenly we were thrown several years back in time, but we are gradually seeing a solid recovery.” Gysen is lucky that the high energy prices have little influence on the company’s activities. “We use a very economical, CO2-neutral technology for insect control.” The biggest challenge today is consolidation to build a sustainable business model. Leen Gysen, now 51, works hard on the legacy. “You can’t sell this business through an exit. The younger generation has to take over this business, but you can’t do that in a year. We’re spreading it over time for financial reasons so they can grow the business.” Insect control in particular can become a growth engine. “Because of the European regulation that prohibits the use of nitrogen for insect control, the market is open to us,” says Gysen. “It’s about reacting quickly and thus increasing our market share and our brand awareness. In addition to our departments in Berlin, London and Brussels, we also support partners – for example in Spain – in the technological and marketing area. you need a lot of capital, so we are looking at different cooperation opportunities.” IPARC is looking at which investors they want to work with. Gysen: “We see a lot of interest from the Middle East.”