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10 Ridiculous Ways Works of Art Have Been Ruined
Humanity’s admiration of art is strange. Why do people feel so strongly about things made from such fragile materials? The full answer might never be known, but people have become very good at protecting valuable art. Very good, but not perfect. The world is too unpredictable for precautions to be taken against every eventuality, and this list shows how artists, collectors, and curators have learned this the hard way, often at great expense.
The lucky ones on this list deliberately destroyed their work or were able to repair it, but some were not so fortunate. This list will surely bring as much schadenfreude to those who find the art world pretentious as it will shock others. Here are ten ridiculous ways pieces of art have been ruined.
10 Mistaken for Trash
A surprisingly common event is modern art being mistaken for trash. Several cases of cleaners tossing out art have been reported, and it is never the paintings of old masters. However, there is still a hefty price tag attached.
In 2014, pieces by the artist Sala Murat were thrown out by a gallery cleaner in southern Italy who mistook them for garbage. The items were made of newspaper, cardboard, and cookie pieces, and they were scattered across the floor. She thought they were trash left behind by the workers who set up the exhibition. Refuse collectors had already taken the pieces away by the time security noticed things were missing.
Fortunately, the cleaning firm’s insurance covered the estimated 10,000 euro value of the pieces. The situation is similar to when a 2001 installation containing beer bottles, coffee cups, and ashtrays by the British artist Damien Hirst was accidentally thrown away at a London gallery. The same happened in 2004 with a bag containing paper and cardboard, which was designed by the German artist Gustav Metzger.
9 Eaten by Visitor
Maurizio Cattelan figured out a formula for success in the world of modern art: Take a single-word title like “Comedian,” duct-tape a banana to a wall, and apply the former to the latter. That simple idea sold for $120,000 in 2019. Perhaps he should have stuck to the tradition of painting fruit instead of using the real thing since the banana has been eaten while on display at least twice.
It was first eaten by a performance artist in Miami in 2019, shortly after it had been sold. The second time was while it was on display at Seoul’s Leeum Museum of Art. A South Korean student called Noh Huyn-soo, who later told journalists he was hungry because he skipped breakfast, casually took the banana off the wall and ate it in front of a stunned crowd while his friend filmed him. He then taped the banana peel back in the same spot on the wall. The museum did not claim any damages, probably because the banana had to be replaced every few days anyway.
8 Punched by Visitor
Setting up an exhibition is difficult. Visitors need to be able to get close enough to appreciate a painting’s details. At the same time, people can be clumsy or overexcited, and the paintings they are close to can cost millions of dollars. It is a fine line. Exhibition organizers at Taipei’s Huashan 1914 gallery learned they were on the wrong side of that line when a stumbling schoolboy stuck his fist through a $1.5 million 17th-century painting in 2015.
The student was apparently so engrossed in listening to his group’s tour guide that he tripped over the barrier in front of the painting. Reaching out to steady himself, he put one hand straight through the painting while also spilling his drink on it.
The curator, who had given special permission for guests to get so close to the paintings, was said to be literally speechless for several minutes when he heard what had happened. It was clearly an accident, so the boy and his family did not have to pay anything. The painting Flowers by the Italian Baroque artist Paolo Porpora was able to be restored by experts.
7 Tapped by Visitor (Who Should Have Known Better)
A stumbling schoolboy reaching out to steady himself is one thing, but it is quite another for an art collector to smash a sculpture by doing something that signs repeatedly warn people not to do—touch the art. That is what happened in Miami in 2023 when an unnamed collector decided, for some unknown reason, to tap one of the iconic Balloon Dog sculptures by U.S. artist Jeff Koons.
The $42,000 piece promptly fell from its plinth and shattered into thousands of tiny pieces. The bustling gallery was brought to a standstill as people gathered around to see what had happened. Ironically, the destruction of the sculpture was a good thing for some folk in the art world. The sculpture was part of a limited edition, which had now just become even more limited—a good thing for collectors. One even offered to buy the sculpture’s broken shards.
6 Elbowed by Owner
Some people speak with their hands as much as their mouths. Billionaire casino magnate Steve Wynn is one such person. It was this trait that nearly lost him a fortune in 2006 when he was showing off a famous Picasso he owned to a group of his friends. Wynn also suffers from an eye condition that affects his peripheral vision.
So, while explaining the provenance of Le Rêve—Picasso’s portrait of his mistress—to his guests, Wynn gestured with his right hand while standing in front of the painting. He then heard a ripping sound. He had been standing too close and had struck the painting with his elbow, tearing a small hole in the bottom right corner. The incident became known as the “The $40-Million Elbow,” although Wynn had actually paid $48.4 million originally.
But the worst part was that he had just agreed to sell it for $139 million. It would have been the highest price ever paid for a work of art. Fortunately for him, the tear was small enough that it could be mended, and he eventually sold the painting for $155 million to the same buyer.
5 Shredded by Artist
Despite being one of its leading artists, the anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy is not afraid to make fun of the art world. A 2018 prank he pulled at the auction house Sotheby’s demonstrated this perfectly. One of his own works was up for auction: a famous spray paint and acrylic image of a young girl reaching out for a heart-shaped balloon.
The image was on a canvas surrounded by a heavy-looking golden frame, the sort usually seen around old paintings. When the bidding stopped, a buyer had agreed to pay $1.4 million for the piece. Little did they know the artist had a surprise in store for the auction attendees. Suddenly, the picture slipped down its frame, the bottom of which contained a shredder.
From the bottom of the frame, the picture began to reemerge in long, thin ribbons. It is believed Banksy’s self-destructing art was activated by some kind of remote device. The artist had been biding his time. A video uploaded to his Instagram showing the secret shredder being installed inside the frame was accompanied by text saying “a few years ago.”
4 Destroyed by Christopher Walken
The Sotheby’s incident would not be the only time Banksy dabbled in the creative destruction of his own work. In 2021, some of his art was featured in a BBC comedy-drama series written by Stephen Merchant and starring Christopher Walken. The series was set in Bristol, the home city of Banksy and Merchant, and followed a bunch of petty criminals as they completed community service by redecorating a community center.
On a wall in the final episode was some graffiti of a rat with a spray can, painted in Banksy’s classic stenciled style. The artist’s name sat above it in dripping orange spray paint. Christopher Walken played conman Frank, who gets told by his supervisor to paint over all graffiti. He does what he is asked, which must have led to some shock when a show spokesman later confirmed that Walken had, in fact, painted over a genuine Banksy original. However, it was created by the artist specifically for the show.
3 Burned Because Churchill Hated It
In 1954, one of Britain’s leading artists was asked to paint Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in honor of Churchill’s 80th birthday. It became the most famous portrait he painted, although it was never seen in public after its unveiling. The artist was Graham Sutherland, known for his surreal modern paintings. While well-respected, he turned out to be the wrong choice for Churchill’s portrait.
Sutherland refused to let the prime minister preview the portrait because he wanted to paint Churchill as he saw him and not how Churchill wanted to be painted. The historian Simon Schama later explained that Sutherland saw Churchill as a “magnificent ruin.” This did not please Churchill.
At its unveiling ceremony, Churchill described the portrait condescendingly as “a remarkable example of modern art.” He did not allow it to be hung in the Houses of Parliament and took it home instead. It was never seen again. The portrait was hidden in the cellar until Churchill’s wife asked her private secretary to dispose of it secretly. The secretary and her brother took the painting away in the middle of the night and burned it.
2 Defaced by Bored Security Guard (on His First Day)
This list has avoided instances of vandalism, not because they are few in number. In fact, there are so many stories of the vandalism of famous artworks that they have been much discussed elsewhere. It is one of the main reasons, besides theft, that galleries and museums have security guards. And they can be trusted not to mess with the art, right? Not when boredom gets the better of them, apparently.
In 2022, a security guard working at an abstract art exhibition in Moscow decided his boredom would be relieved if the faceless figures in a painting by Russian avant-garde artist Anna Leporskaya had eyes. So he took out his ballpoint pen and added them. It was his first day on the job, and he would shortly see his last as he was justifiably fired for defacing the painting, worth almost $900,000.
The painting was sent to professional restorers who reported that it could be repaired without permanent damage. However, the cost of fixing those four tiny circles came to a few thousand dollars.
1 Struck by Lightning
People can be counted on to be clumsy, ignorant, and mischievous. While cases like those in this list rarely happen, given enough time, they are pretty much bound to. But what are the odds art would be destroyed by lightning? Extremely long, one would think, and yet it has happened.
In 2021, a mural commemorating police brutality victim George Floyd in Toledo, Ohio, was irreparably damaged when the wall on which it was painted was struck by lightning and collapsed into rubble. It had been painted only a year earlier by a local artist called David Ross. Ross said the purpose had been to never forget what had happened to George Floyd after he was murdered in May 2020.
Witnesses saw the lightning bolt strike the large mural, which was painted on the wall of a building. The building survived the strike. However, Ross said he would choose a location where the mural was visible to more people when he repainted it. The mayor of Toledo confirmed that the city’s art council would see to it that the mural was replaced.