Caroline Keck's letters to the IIC: IIC's first newsletter, Caroline's twice-published book, and Sheldon's agile eyebrows

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Sheldon and Caroline Keck in their studio. Photograph taken by Frank Rollins, Cooperstown, NY. Image courtesy of Albert Keck.

By Jean D. Portell

IIC's long association with American members Sheldon and Caroline Keck (whom I met in 1962) is revealed in Caroline's correspondence from March 1952 to July 2006, which is archived at IIC. Caroline was 99 when she died in 2007. Sheldon, who was 83 when he died in 1993, also corresponded directly with leaders of IIC; his letters are archived there too.

I am very grateful to Graham Voce and Tina Churcher, who keep the IIC office humming today, for enabling me to read and quote from many of Caroline's letters to, and from, IIC's former leaders. I should also mention that in the late 1990s, Ms. Perry Smith, IIC's Executive Secretary for 35 years, kindly helped me obtain information about the early years of IIC, and in 2000 she put me in touch with Dr. Hero (then Boothroyd Brooks) Lotti, who was then working on her book about IIC's first 50 years; I referred also to that when describing the early years of IIC's Newsletter.

The International Institute for Conservation of Museum Objects (IIC's early name) was founded in 1950. Two of the charter members were Sheldon Keck and Caroline K. Keck. Planning a newsletter was discussed, and by December 1950 Sheldon Keck was proposed as the editor. During a meeting of IIC Fellows held at the Fogg Art Museum on January 12, 1951, Sheldon and Caroline agreed to edit the Newsletter on a temporary basis. It was decided that IIC's home office in England would carry part of the responsibility, and that a temporary American editorial office would be set up in the United States of America to carry the other part. By March 1952 the Kecks had become the Newsletter's editors pro tem, issuing the publication from the Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA, where Sheldon was employed. Sheldon's title when working for IIC was "American Representative." Here is the opening of the Kecks' letter of that date that was mailed to each member of IIC:

"Dear Fellow Member:
For some time we have wanted to issue a Newsletter for the IIC and the hardest part seems to be getting the first issue out. Perhaps if we go ahead and publish what we can, the ensuing criticism will show us what changes are necessary. "

Not surprisingly the Newsletter got a slow start. The territory covered by IIC's international membership was vast, and decades would pass before the World Wide Web was invented. Below is part of the brief notice that the American editors mailed in March 1955 to IIC's far-flung members.

"Dear Fellow Member:
NEWSLETTER no. 3 is in the making, what items of interest can you contribute? [...] Why not use the rest of this sheet to jot down your data for the NEWSLETTER and return it to us promptly in the enclosed envelope?"

Secretary-General F. I. G Rawlins's letter to Mrs. Keck on 24 January 1958, clarifies IIC's billing arrangement. The Kecks, working from Brooklyn, were responsible for billing members in "the U.S.A., Canada, and all the Americas and Cuba, together with the Far East." The head office took care of billing "Australia and New Zealand, as part of the British Commonwealth and Empire." And "In practice, Paul Coremans does all the membership work for the Continent of Europe, although we have to struggle here with the various forms of monetary exchange."

Caroline's October 7, 1958 letter to Norman Brommelle reveals how the Kecks split their work for IIC. She says, "I never go to the office at the BM [Brooklyn Museum], and have absolutely nothing to do with Sue Sack [assistant conservator to Sheldon Keck] and Sheldon's problems via funds, membership etc. [...] When I am at the BM I have other things to take care of not IIC .... the Newsletter I do from home, in comparative peace and quiet ..." Indeed, she was always the more prolific writer of the two.

By January 1959, Brommelle agreed with Caroline that Dr. Robert L. Feller should become the joint newsletter editor with her. This lightened the burden on Caroline. It also assured that if either of them became indisposed, the other could complete compiling the material that would have to be mailed to IIC by the next deadline. Later that year Brommelle suggested to the Council that the IIC Newsletter be expanded, renamed IIC News, and produced from the London office. And that is what happened.

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When I read the IIC's archived May 1967 correspondence between Caroline and IIC's London office, I discovered the backstory of an incident I knew about that occurred that year in the USA, but which I now understand was first brought to the attention of Secretary General Norman Brommelle by a member of the IIC who sent him a copy of a paperback book by Caroline, titled A Handbook on the Care of Paintings, enclosing a long letter to him referring disapprovingly to some of the book's text. Few people may know that this book was published twice in 1965, with slightly different cover illustrations (see photo). By comparing the pages of the two books (the second version was also published in hardcover), various small changes in the text can also be noted.

My copy, published in early 1965 (which Caroline signed for me that year), has a section at the end titled RECOMMENDED CONSERVATORS FOR PAINTINGS that begins with this statement:

"Not all museum conservators are free to assume additional employment. The following persons, listed alphabetically, are known intimately to us [the Kecks]; we respect their work and their integrity. If other names are suggested to you, they may be good practitioners. However, check in advance for reliable, objective opinion. Beware of any person who entices your patronage by proffering as a guarantee of ability a certificate of membership in the International Institute for Conservation. We all belong to this organization and it is not a qualifying institution."

The member of IIC who read that paragraph, and the 18 names following it, and wrote to Mr. Brommelle quickly received his letter in response saying that he found the book contained valuable information, but that he would immediately write to Mrs. Keck about the passages brought to his attention. His short letter to Caroline elicited a two-page letter from her, dated May 14, 1967. Here are parts of it:

"As I recall we had correspondence a good many years back in which we were informed by London that IIC was not a qualifying organization. [...] It was not, to the best of my memory, considered a qualification in the beginning, and I still find it hard to understand how we can justify the claim. We have no examinations as such and no licensing. If you consider the distinguished group of Fellows - Sir Philip Hendy, Norman Reid, Henri Marceau, W. G. Constable, to name a few - who are interested in and have great influence on conservation but none of whom claim to be practitioners, just what does the qualification of a Fellow amount to? This is a very touchy matter and one which fortunately few of our Fellows ever misuse.

There are, however, associates who do misuse IIC membership to indicate to the unknowing that membership gives them an edge over their competitors. It is this group that I was aiming at, warning the public from being misled. You may not have this group in England; we do have cases of it here."

Near the end of that letter she says:

"I make plenty of statements in my writings with which other people do not agree; they are my opinions, let others express their opinions. I have always stuck my neck out and it is often chopped at."

Caroline told me long ago that Sheldon refused to let her imply in her book that he approved of publishing a list of recommended people. So she quickly arranged for a slightly altered second version of the book to be published the same year by Watson-Guptill (in both paperback and hardcover). In it, she changed the plural form "known intimately to us" and "We respect" to the singular form "me" and "I" in the paragraph preceding the list of (now 24) names. Her hardcover version from late 1965 was reprinted twice, in 1972 and 1974.

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I will end by sharing something amusing I learned about the Kecks, which was confirmed in a September 29, 2000 letter from Caroline to Dr. Michael von der Goltz that he kindly shared with me.

It was generally known that Sheldon usually avoided being combative and that Caroline loved voicing her strong feelings. Well, they invented a way he could signal silently to her during an animated group discussion, even at a dinner party. When a conversation about something that interested them became heated, Caroline would look at Sheldon. If he raised one eyebrow (I don't know which), it meant stay out of it. Raising his other eyebrow was the signal for Caroline to go for it!


Jean D. Portell graduated from Vassar College in 1962. That year she met the Kecks, who encouraged her to become a sculpture conservator. Before retiring in 2004, Jean worked in four museums and ran a home-based private practice. In 2013 she was elected an Honorary Member of the American Institute for Conservation. Jean is working on a biography of Sheldon and Caroline Keck.

(For more the full article including images and video, view "News in Conservation" issue 74, October 2019 here:

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The International Institute for Conservation of Museum Objects (IIC's early name) was founded in 1950. Two of the charter members were Sheldon Keck and Caroline K. Keck. Planning a newsletter was discussed, and by December 1950 Sheldon Keck was proposed as the editor.
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