Zoltan Papp: Master of Art Restoration and Recreation

When Zoltan Papp was asked by noted fashion designer Sue Wong to help her restore an old Hollywood mansion she had acquired to its previous glory, little did he realize he would be embarking on a three year project. At first, Ms. Wong asked him to restore the Norma Talmadge room of the estate, but before that they agreed that he would do a sample restoration for that room. When Ms. Wong saw his work, she was most impressed and commissioned him to restore the entire room. That, of course, was only the beginning, and every room in the edifice was subsequently meticulously restored by Mr. Papp and his crack team of expert craftsman personally selected by him. Ceilings, walls, floors, furniture, mirrors, paintings, sculptures, crystal, silver, marble, porcelain – you name it, all are the province of Mr. Papp, who has decades of experience in art restoration and recreation.

So, how did Mr. Papp come to enter this field? He was born in Budapest, Hungary into a musical family. His father worked in opera, his mother was a jazz singer, and his brother became a touring musician. Little Zoltan was often up late making music with his family, but he decided to pursue another artistic pathway. From an early age, he had filled his school textbooks with drawings of people, and art became his passion. He decided to pursue a career in art restoration, as his father had humorously stated that it was better to be a first rate art restorer than a second class musician. However, Zoltan first had to gain admission to the prestigious Hungarian Fine Arts School, which was no easy task as just 9 of the 450 applicants were to be accepted. This number had been pre-determined by the communist state government under which Zoltan then lived, as this was how many art restorers would be needed. Candidates for the school had to submit their grades and a portfolio, and then underwent five days of testing involving such skills as drawing and shaping a statue. If one survived that, one was called back for two more days of testing, and if one survived that, one was called back for the final daylong interview. Zoltan did survive all that, and attended the school from 1972 – 1978. His summers were spent doing art restorations in places like the Hungarian Opera House, and he also worked on churches and castles, often staying in the latter while the work was done. Zoltan delighted in these experiences, picking up valuable skills in what he calls the “practical chemistry” of art restoring. In addition, the state was paying for his education and his work and living expenses, and paying Zoltan as well! Only four of the original nine students were to graduate, and Zoltan was one of them! Everyone who graduated in the Hungary of that time got a job and had to work; it was a society that provided free schooling, free healthcare, and paid vacations, but no freedom of speech or passports; once the state had invested in you, they did not want to lose you. But Zoltan made the best of this situation, and, after his rigorous training, he began working first in Hungary and then in Austria and Germany on a vast variety of state restoration projects. Reveling in the work, he gained wide ranging experience in the field, specializing in interior restoration.

Eventually, Zoltan was able to move to the United States. Arriving in 1984, he gained more experience working for the prestigious Getty Museum, after which he felt ready to strike out on his own. He opened his own business in 1986 in Los Angeles, and one of his first clients was Zubin Mehta, then the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zoltan had met Mr. Mehta in Austria and so impressed the music great with his restoration skills that when Mr. Mehta later bought Steve McQueen’s house in Los Angeles, he literally tracked down Zoltan through the Austrian embassy to help him. The work Zoltan did for Mr. Mehta on the McQueen house was of such quality that it launched his career as an independent art restorer. Many celebrity clients followed, including Ridley Scott, Helen Mirren, Rod Stewart, Jaclyn Smith, Samuel Jackson, and Gore Vidal. Besides top personalities in entertainment and fashion design, Zoltan has worked with high-level insurance companies, interior designers, and antique auctioneers.

For the first three years of his business, Zoltan worked alone, but he simply couldn’t do it all himself as his reputation spread by word of mouth. He now employs 8 to 45 independent contractors, most of whom are highly trained European artisans. Zoltan personally monitors every detail of every project, and is very much hands on in its realization. Often, he is called upon to recreate missing sections of an object in its original style or even reproduce an entire piece of furniture.

Zoltan’s work for Sue Wong in her complete rebuilding and restoration of The Cedars Mansion in Los Feliz is exemplary of his talents. The moment he entered the once grand edifice in 2004, he sensed the totality of what had to be done: not only restoration but also recreation would be required. The project unfolded room by room under the direction of Ms. Wong; first drawings were made by Zoltan, then a small sample test project was completed for the room, and if that project was successful, the entire room was undertaken. Once that room’s undertakings met the high standards of Sue Wong, it was onward to the next room. Each room brought a new set of challenges for the Wong/Papp endeavor. Ceilings were particularly time consuming: first they had to be stabilized, then cleaned, then a sealer had to be applied to preserve the original often vibrant color. For example, the ceiling of the dining room was comprised of 465 distinct plates, each of which had to be meticulously cleaned to remove over 80 years of grime, as the mansion was originally built in the 1920’s. Furthermore, when Ms. Wong purchased the house, it contained no furniture, so she embarked on years of traversing the globe to find appropriate ornate period pieces. In some cases, Zoltan was called upon to exactly reproduce an antique Ms. Wong had acquired, such as a fabulous chair fit for a queen in the living room; in other cases, he was to completely create a piece reminiscent of a particular style. Another Cedars project most worthy of noting is Zoltan’s magnificent restoration and recreation of the arch between the solarium and the living room, truly a sight to behold! Indeed, the creativity and industriousness displayed by Zoltan in the Cedars restoration mark one of his crowning achievements.

His work has been cited in many publications. A Los Angeles Magazine article on Gore Vidal’s unique Hollywood Hills home gives prominent mention to Zoltan’s restorations for Vidal and serves as a tribute to his ingenuity and style. A Los Angeles Times article on Sue Wong’s Cedars residence mentions Zoltan’s work on a special Baroque chair, which is a true marvel to behold. Another article in Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine further details his collaborations with Sue Wong at the Cedars, discussing the magnificent console table he created in the style of Art Deco and Second Empire and his detailed restorations of ceilings in the edifice; at the Cedars, and everywhere else he has worked, Zoltan’s attention to detail and encyclopedic knowledge of various styles resulted in pieces of ethereal beauty.

Indeed, all of these articles celebrate both his skill and his versatility and it is evident that the huge domain of Zoltan Papp encompasses restoration and re-creations in the spirit and technique of literally any style or any period of art. He is equally adept at working on a painting or figure or figurine or furniture, as well as any structure from floor to ceiling. One can view the scope and beauty of his work by visiting his Artisan Restoration Center on the internet.

This man, who prides himself on perfection in reproduction, also initiates art projects. Worldwide scouts find pieces for him in need of restoration at venues such as auction houses, Zoltan purchases the item and then sets about turning it into a true showpiece. A vintage piano was thusly purchased in New York, restored to glory in Los Angeles by Zoltan, and then sold in China by him at a grand exposition there where his creative recreations were on display. So, Zoltan is now a worldwide force; he has undertaken projects nationally throughout the United States and internationally in countries such as China.

With such a multitude of projects both here and abroad, Zoltan Papp is like a human dynamo, a man completely dedicated to his work and his art. Each assignment is a new adventure for him to be attacked with gusto and creativity. Because of his mastery of his craft, he is in constant demand around the globe and his commissions involve celebrity clients and first tier companies. Driven by his enthusiasm and work ethic, Zoltan strives for unmatched excellence in every restoration and recreation, be it large or small, and the magnificent pieces he has produced are testaments to his skill.