The 5 Biggest Art Disasters in History (and How Not To Repeat Them)
Great works of art often defy their inherent values in time.
Whether you consider them pieces of patronage, expressions of taste, or tokens of investment, when you add provenance, rarity, history, and an artist’s prominence to the equation, you may have yourself a masterpiece.
But even the greatest works aren’t immune to destruction. Whether caused by force majeure or human negligence, some of the world’s most cherished works have gone from priceless to worthless in just one unfortunate instant. Here, we round up some of the worst art mishaps.
Venus De Milo, Alexandros of Antioch
The ancient Hellenistic statue of Venus, despite missing her arms, still inspires breathtaking awe among those who visit her court at the Louvre. Many may assume the relic of the goddess of love and beauty was forgotten by time and punished by the elements till she was later discovered by a more appreciative, enlightened civilization. However, this was not the case.
What happened: The Aphrodite de Milo, as she should be known, was created around 100 B.C. She was believed to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch, and was found on the Greek island of Milos. Excavated in April of 1820 by a farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas, she was reported to have been found with her left arm holding up an apple. For her beauty and historic relevance, the French naval officers stationed on the island set about bringing the marble goddess back to Versailles. However, as the sum of the plunder hadn't been settled, a fight between the Greek and the French ensued. The statue was hastily dragged along the craggy beaches before she was transferred to a waiting ship, and her arm was left behind.
What we can learn: While the French navy may have done their King Louis XVIII proud and may have made the Louvre collections a bit richer, there’s no disputing the fact that looting a place of one’s history and heritage not only robs a work of its beauty, but of its dignity as well.
Flowers, Paolo Porpora
Where creativity blooms and ideas thrive, a museum may be the best place to bring a child to hone his gift for artistry, or at least his cultural appreciation. This is perhaps what the parents of a 12-year-old boy from Taiwan thought when they brought him to the "Face of Leonardo: Images of a Genius" exhibition in Taipei, to marvel at the masters and their works. Among them was a 350-year-old oil on canvas painting called Flowers by Italian baroque painter Paolo Porpora, valued at $1.5 million. Done in the Flemish-style of still life paintings and measuring a height of 200 centimeters. Porpora’s tour de force was decked with crimson carnations, blue irises, and yellow snapdragons in a brass vase.
What happened: It was lush and breathtakingly immense. Unfortunately, the boy hadn’t noticed. Walking with a soda can along a velvet rope serving as the barrier for the painting, his gaze fixed on his companions, the boy tripped and punched a fist-sized hole into the 17th century painting. Ouch.
What we learned: While CCTV footage of the museum showed it was all an accident and his folks escaped the million-dollar damages, it is still an expensive reminder that while museum art begs your careful attention, so do your kids.
Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sail Boat, Jean Claude Monet
In the summer of 1874, aboard his floating studio, Monet painted one of his earliest works of Impressionist art. The town of Argenteuil, on the picturesque banks of the Seine, proved to be a retreat essential for the prolific artist, and the solitary respite was showcased in his painting of a sailboat causing ripples on the reflective waters. It spoke of the united movement of the clouds, the waves, and the leaves of the trees, as the sail catches wind; it showed Monet’s genius in capturing life at its most moving.
What happened: Irish playwright Edward Martyn was captivated by the oil painting and he purchased it in 1899. It found its way in Dublin and was later bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland where its value was estimated at €10 million. The painting did not evoke the same tranquility for one gallery visitor, however. In 2012, Andrew Shannon, 49, punched the painting, leaving it with an extensive tear that went in three directions.
What we learned: After 18 months of restoration, only seven percent of the damaged area was irreparable, and the painting is back in the gallery behind protective glass. Shannon was tried for vandalism and convicted for five years. So, the next time you disagree with another person’s view of beauty or art, also consider whether your actions will be worth spending time in jail.
Ecce Homo, Elias Garcia Martinez/Cecilia Gimenez
Some of art's finest examples were done out of reverence. Religious art flourished as much for its expression of faith, as for its artistic finesse.
A fresco by Elías García Martínez in 1930 is found in the Santuario de la Misericordia church in Borja, Spain. It depicts Jesus crowned with thorns in the traditional Catholic technique. Entitled Ecce Homo, meaning “behold the man” in Latin, it takes from the words Pontius Pilate uttered when he presented the scourged Christ to the crowds. It was a painting meant to inspire faith, not creative revelation, and critics would deem it artistically unremarkable. Until one woman changed all of that.
What happened: In 2012 Cecilia Giménez, an 83-year-old parishioner and amateur painter, took to her brushes and palette in an attempt to restore the almost century-old fresco. Armed with her pious sense of duty, and, perhaps, her failing eyesight, Giménez toiled to repair the flaking fresco, which she hailed as her favorite representation of Christ. The result? Well, the visiting crowds now christen it, Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey).
What we learned: At the time of its unveiling, it caused an uproar among the Spanish clergy for the institution’s neglect of its religious arts. But as the mean tweets and the memes died down, pilgrims by the droves have started flocking to the once-forgotten church to visit what could be a miracle in disguise. Divine inspiration and intervention aside, it is still best to leave the restorations to the pros.
Le Rêve, Pablo Picasso
At the top of his game at age 50, with a 22-year-old mistress, Picasso's life was but a dream when he painted the portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter. In deep reverie, right breast peeking, hands clasped in tempting contemplation, head tilted back in bliss, Picasso's subject displayed his lust for the bold primary colors and the primitive lines that would define his Fauvist movement, as well as his unbridled eroticism.
Fast forward to the year 2001, when real estate developer Steve Wynn unveiled plans for the 49-storey Wynn Las Vegas, set to be the most expensive casino resort in Sin City. Wynn needed art for the walls, so he purchased Le Rêve at an estimated sum of $60 million, making Picasso’s masterwork one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. The painting earned Wynn good returns as it became the centerpiece of his hotel. He even named his landmark light, water, and dance spectacle after it. But that luck quickly changed its course.
What happened: In October 2006, just one day after agreeing to liquidate Le Rêve to SAC Capital’s Steve Cohen for $139 million, Wynn gathered his friends Barbara Walters, Nora Ephron, and Louise Grunwald, among others, for a final look at the dreamy painting. Suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, which affects his peripheral vision, Wynn took a slight step back as he gestured with his right hand, and accidentally elbowed the painting. This caused a pinky sized hole in the canvas. After his blunder, Wynn said to his guests, “Well, I’m glad I did it and not you.”
The sale at that time obviously fell through, and Wynn filed an insurance claim with Lloyd's of London to recover the $54 million perceived loss value. When the insurers refused, it led to a five-month court battle that reached a settlement. After a repair that cost $90,000, the painting was re-valued at $85 million. In the end, because of its history and hurdles, its painter and its unusual provenance, Cohen still purchased the painting for $155 million in 2013, $16 million higher than his original pitch.
What we learned: So, what can be learned here? First, that in the luxury art world, provenance trumps a few tears and repairs. Second, it is always a good idea to have that piece of art insured. Third, a real patron pursues his most beloved painting, no matter the price.