Clifford Craine paused for a moment in 2009 while removing corrosion from the surface of “Three-Piece Reclining Figure: Draped,” a Henry Moore abstract sculpture that enlivens the grounds of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It’s such a beautiful sculpture. It’s a pleasure to work on,” Mr. Craine said that September day. “An honor.”
A day of work as one of the nation’s leading art conservators was always more than simply a day wielding tools for Mr. Craine. A piece of art that he held in his hands was as much his client as whoever was paying for the restoration work. In a way, the artist who created the piece was his customer, too.
“He really understood that the objects we work on are important pieces of art history, and that they will outlive us,” said his son, Joshua, who now runs Daedalus, the Watertown art conservation company Mr. Craine founded in 1989. “It was really important to him that the intent of the people who created these things were carried on, even as they needed repair. Their hands were the most important things and we were there to take care of these objects.”
Mr. Craine, who moved more than 40 years ago from his boyhood home in Detroit to Greater Boston, where he became a renowned figure in the field of art conservation, died Nov. 15 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital of a rare form of bone marrow cancer. He was 73 and lived in Brookline Village.
Among the many works upon which he placed his restoring hands were the “Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial” across from the Massachusetts State House, the bronze statue of George Washington astride a horse in the Public Garden, and the “Statue of Freedom” that stands atop the Capitol dome in Washington.
“He worked on some of the best-known monuments in Boston and around the country,” his son said, adding that although Mr. Craine was the conservator of choice for famous artworks, “he really was most at home sitting in his studio, fixing a broken Greek vase.”
Mr. Craine combined an unpretentious childhood in Detroit with the expansive artistic journey he took in college years and beyond.
“He was an incredible combination of an intellectual philosopher and someone who worked with his hands and identified strongly with people who worked with their hands. Not just artists, but welders and plumbers and carpenters,” said his wife, Susan Linn, a writer and psychologist who created the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“I used to joke that he was magic with machines and anything mechanical,” she added. “He’d lay hands on them and they would kind of leap to life.”
Mr. Craine, however, could be all but nonchalant about his expertise, telling The Washington Post in 2000 that “the work itself is fairly routine. What we get paid for is to make judgments.”
Though it sounds counterintuitive, “he would often say that we get paid for what we don’t do,” said his son, who lives in Newton. By that, Mr. Craine meant that governments, museums, and private collectors counted on him and his associates to not change an artwork during restoration. “Treating objects ethically was a major thing for him,” his son said.
Linn added that “it was important to him to not over-restore. The integrity of the object was important to Cliff.”
The third of four siblings, Mr. Craine was born and grew up in Detroit, a son of Max Craine and the former Molly Joseff. His father owned a picture frame business and “Cliff’s earliest memories were of sitting at a bench in his father’s shop hammering nails into the bench,” his wife said. “In a funny way, he was training to be a conservator without even knowing that was what he was doing.”
He attended Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Monteith College at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1965. Four years later, he received a master’s from Wayne State.
“He was incredibly good with his hands,” his wife said, “yet at the same time he took organic chemistry, and he loved that kind of science.”
Mr. Craine “once worked as an ash handler and flue cleaner for one of Detroit’s industrial plants,” she added. He also taught art history and humanities at Oakland Community College in Michigan, and moved into the field that would be his life’s work first as an apprentice in the conservation sciences laboratory at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
In 1976, he received a certificate of internship in conservation of objects and sculpture from Harvard University, and the following year he became assistant conservator in that realm at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. He also interned at MIT’s Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology before becoming associate conservator of the head of objects laboratory at the Fogg’s Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.
With a partner, he launched the Dennis and Craine, Associates conservator firm in Cambridge in 1983. On his own, Mr. Craine founded Daedalus in Watertown six years later. He also did archeological conservator work in Italy and was a visiting lecturer in Lisbon. A fellow of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Mr. Craine was honored often for his work during his career.
“He used to read philosophy and science for pleasure,” his wife said.
“And he was really humble about his work. Cliff took his work seriously, but not himself. He came out of what was ultimately a working-class family in Detroit, and those roots were important to him.”
She, too, had attended Detroit’s Cass Technical High, though not at the same time as Mr. Craine, whose first marriage ended in divorce.
Linn and Mr. Craine, who married in 1980, met by chance in Boston. One of her sisters, who had a crush on Mr. Craine during high school, was visiting Linn in Boston years ago. While they sat at cafe, “he came walking down the street,” Linn recalled. “She looked up and said, ‘Cliff Craine.’ ”
A service has been held for Mr. Craine, who in addition to his wife and son leaves a daughter, Sasha of Medford; two brothers, Lewis of Atlanta and Joseph of West Bloomfield, Mich.; a sister, Toni Jacob of West Bloomfield; and two grandchildren.
Conservator work appealed to Mr. Craine in part because “it’s a way of using your brains and your hands at the same time,” he told the Globe in 2002.
There also was the constant allure of holding in his hands pieces of art, some of which were created hundreds of years ago. “Sometimes it can be a powerful experience,” he said. It connects you to the past.”