When a 12-year old boy armed with soda meets an expensive painting, guess who wins? It's not the painting, the displaying museum, or the insurance company, that’s for sure.
Recently in Taipei, Taiwan, a 12-year old boy holding a large soda tripped in front of a 350-year old painting on loan from Italy. While trying to keep from falling over, the boy managed to push his soda-carrying hand into the canvas, creating a fist-sized hole in the $1.5 million painting. Restoration efforts are underway.
It is surprising these incidents do not happen more often — especially in any museum that allows sodas (and possibly 12-year old boys). While they are rare, there have been other high-priced accidents involving art and human error.
- The Actor's Comeback – In January of 2010, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a woman accidentally fell into Picasso's The Actor, creating a six-inch rip. The estimated value of the piece was $130 million. After three months of painstaking repair and restoration, The Actor made a re-appearance, this time behind plexiglass.
- A Change of Art – In 2006, billionaire casino magnate Steve Wynn decided to sell some of his museum-quality collection of paintings including Picasso's 1932 work Le Rêve. Wynn agreed to sell the painting to fellow collector and hedge fund boss Steve Cohen.
During a get-together after the appraisal, Wynn accidentally tore a two-inch hole in the canvas of Le Rêve with his elbow, gesturing while not realizing how close he was to the painting. As he was having the painting restored, Wynn decided the accident was a sign that he should keep the painting and cancelled the deal. He reversed yet again and sold the painting to Cohen in 2013.
- A Little Too Clean – Modern art can provide a difference set of risks, as it is not always obvious what constitutes a piece of art. German artist Martin Kippenberger created a modern sculpture titled "When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling," a wooden tower with a trough mounted at the base of the sculpture. Kippenberger included a paint layer to mimic a dried puddle inside the trough. During its time at the Ostwall Museum in Berlin, a conscientious cleaning lady "cleaned" the trough to look like new. At the time, the sculpture was estimated to be worth $1.1 million.
- Vanquished Vases – A visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, tripped on a shoelace and tumbled down a stairway, knocking over three 300-year old Chinese vases dating back to the Qing dynasty. The visitor was unharmed, but the vases did not fare so well. The vases, valued at a total of $175,000, were restored after six months of effort and placed in a specially designed case. Up until that point, the vases had been sitting undisturbed in a window recess for sixty years.
- Crushed Canvas – At least in the above cases, artwork could be restored. In 2000, Sotheby's employees sent what they thought was an empty traveling crate to a crusher. Unfortunately, the crate contained a painting by British modern artist Lucian Freud worth approximately $157,000. The painting was completely obliterated. No doubt the Sotheby's staff wished equal obliteration on the poor workers who sent the painting off to its doom.
What can artists and galleries learn from this? Make sure your works of art are properly displayed, labeled, and protected as much as possible. Otherwise, the odds are good that eventually some calamity will befall one of your beloved pieces, whether the calamity is initiated by museum and transportation workers, cleaning staff, or a patron with poor balance and bad luck.