Marcel Duchamp’s World in a Box: Fixing a Famous Valise

Museum visitors currently have the opportunity to look inside a rare treasure normally kept locked in dark storage. Marcel Duchamp: The Book and the Box, currently on view in the Logan Gallery at the Legion of Honor, features Duchamp’s iconic artwork, Boîte en Valise, which was made in the late 1930s.

Victoria and the box

Although 300 valises were originally made, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s copy is one of only 24 in the deluxe edition. A miniature museum in a box, the valise contains sixty-nine small reproductions of some of Duchamp’s most famous paintings and constructions.

Boite en Valise

Marcel Duchamp (American, born France, 1877–1968). Le Boîte en valise de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (The Box in the Valise of or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy) no. VII from the deluxe edition (Series A), 1941–1942. Miniature replicas and color reproductions of works by Duchamp, and one unique object, Grand verre (The Large Glass) (lower half) contained in a cloth-covered cardboard box enclosed in a leather valise. Gift of Paula Zurcher in honor of her mother Elizabeth H. Paepcke. 1988.1.196

The Museums’ Boîte en Valise has been carefully guarded from light exposure and is, consequently, relatively unfaded. Unfortunately, however, the artwork has suffered from what conservators term “inherent vice.” The valise was covered with poor quality leather (which deteriorated over time), was broken at its joints, and was in danger of further damage.

Deteriorated leather corner

Necessary repairs required splitting the already crumbly leather in order to insert hinges to reinforce the broken joints. While paper conservators can split paper, a specialist was needed to address the leather issue—we needed someone accustomed to splitting leather on priceless treasures.

We were lucky to obtain the services of David Brock. A conservator of rare books at Stanford University, Brock has significant experience and skill in performing delicate treatments on leather-bound books, structures similar to Duchamp’s leather-bound valise.

David Brock

Using a freshly sharpened knife, he carefully and precisely lifted the leather at the broken joints (nerves of steel are useful for this part of the job).

Knife insertion

Brock then inserted a strong hinge laminate made of Japanese paper and thin cotton fabric that was toned to match the color of the valise. These hinges now allow the box to safely open and close without causing any additional damage.

Laminate insertion

FAMSF paper conservator Victoria Binder finished the repairs on the exterior by adding linen cording to flesh out losses in the valise’s dilapidated handle.

Handle repair

Rare earth magnets were used to secure the repair while it dried.


To finish out the treatment, Binder used cast paper pulp to make repairs toned with watercolors that mimicked the color and texture of the worn leather.

Cast pulp repairs

After the exterior was stabilized, the interior components of the valise had to be addressed. Glissière, the half moon shaped cellulose acetate plastic element, had detached from its transparent tape hinge. Rather than introduce new adhesive where old adhesive had failed, rare earth magnets were again used to achieve an inconspicuous temporary attachment.

Half moon

Age-distorted cellulose acetate panels are another example of the artwork’s “inherent vice.” Shrinkage and buckling of this early plastic caused the transparent panels to pop out of their wooden frames. The panels in the central standing frame were nudged back into plane and held in place with tiny folds of clear polyester film. Like the magnets holding up the Glissière, this repair is reversible, an ideal in any conservation treatment.

Frame magnets

Other fascinating aspects of the valise are the miniature reproductions of Duchamp’s famous "Readymade" sculptures, which include a sealed glass bulb of Paris air, a typewriter cover, and the notorious urinal. We carefully cleaned the mini sculptures using the softest brush obtainable, which is incidentally made of squirrel hair.

Squirl hair brush

This work is typical of the variety encountered by paper conservators at the Legion of Honor: one day we might be conserving Rembrandt prints for an upcoming exhibition and the next day cleaning a urinal (with a squirrel-hair brush, no less)!

Don't miss this unique opportunity to see Marcel Duchamp: The Book in the Box, on view in the Logan Gallery at the Legion of Honor  through November 11, 2012.