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Discovering The Art World's Dirtiest Secret

June 4, 2012

For Lee Sandstead, art historian and assistant professor of art, it all began when he was studying art history in college.

"Paintings, as I have since learned, yellow with age, but we were not told this as students," Sandstead said. "This might sound rather incredible, but most classic paintings in a museum need some kind of conservation, such as replacing the varnish. And even more incredible, in all of the art history classes I have ever taken, no professor had ever mentioned this very basic – yet crucial – fact."

According to Sandstead, while it varies from institution to institution and from decade to decade, varnished paintings need to be cleaned every 60 years or so.

It was when he saw the "Mona Lisa" for the first time and realized how yellow she was, along with the fact her eyebrows were missing, that he decided he needed to find answers. So began a decade-long search in art museums around the world to find the answers and solve the mystery.

"At first, I documented my findings on a blog for my students, and I would use the blog to show my students the differences between clean and dirty paintings, using 'Mona Lisa' as a case study," Sandstead said.

His blog quickly became very popular, and people from all over the world clamored for more. He expanded the blog in many ways, including interviews from a conservator at the National Gallery of Art and one from the Smithsonian. It was from the growing popularity of his blog that the premise for "Cleaning Mona Lisa" was born.

As he collected more information and wrote it down, he realized the book could be more than a traditional hardback or paperback. It could be interactive, and that's where the iBook comes in. Sandstead partnered with Tapity, an app studio, and used Apple's new iBooks Author platform to create "Cleaning Mona Lisa." The book teaches not only the neglected lessons of art restoration, but allows the reader to clean some of the most famous paintings from around the world with the swipe of a finger.

"With the new iBooks platform, the author is able to include video and other 'interactives,'" Sandstead said. "So when the reader opens 'Cleaning Mona Lisa' for the first time, a video of me automatically starts playing, introducing myself and the material to the reader. This really is the future of all digital learning."

Sandstead, who has been has been collecting samples of dirty paintings from all over the world, personally photographed all of the paintings in the book. He also spent the last decade talking to conservators and working with Sotheby's and Christies to understand many of the issues that arise when working with the medium of oil.

It might have taken him a decade to solve the mystery, but it only took three months to turn his original premise into an iBook, which went live in 32 countries on Tuesday, May 29, and debuted at #1 on Apple's arts and entertainment section of iTunes.

The entire process, according to Sandstead, was amazing. "First and foremost, I enjoyed visiting the museums to see the actual artwork, which I encourage everyone to do. Nothing can replace the tactile experience of standing in front of an artwork. Second, and I never thought this, my iBook debuted at #1 in the arts and entertainment section of iTunes. Having a book being read by people is not only an incredible honor, but really fun!"

With one iBook under his belt, Sandstead has plans to write more. He will continue to update "Cleaning Mona Lisa" with new interactives and new information. This summer, he is walking 1,100 miles along the Camino de Santiago and plans to turn that trip into an iBook. He also has a museum series planned. The possibilities, Sandstead admits, are endless.

Sandstead's book can be purchased at iTunes for $2.99. For more information about the book visit