In September 2018, a set of 15th-century wooden statues were “ruined” by a well-intentioned but poorly executed restoration while on view at a Catholic chapel in Spain’s Asturias region.
A local civilian and parishioner of the church, Maria Luisa Menendez, was given permission by the chapel’s priest to paint the statues, sculpted by an unnamed artisan. Left to her own devices, she proceeded to use garishly bright hues, giving Jesus a green robe and Mary a pink headscarf, blue hair and pronounced eyeliner.
“I’m not a professional, but I always liked to do it, and the figures really needed to be painted. So I painted them as I could, with the colors that looked good to me, and the neighbors liked it,” Menendez told a local newspaper. But Asturias officials disagreed, as Education Adviser Genaro Alonso described the results as a “vengeance rather than a restoration.”
In September 2018, this large-scale cast-iron outdoor sculpture was damaged while on view in Scranton, PA. The piece, which had been temporarily installed along the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail as part of the International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art, was ripped from its base and pushed down a hill into a water-filled ditch. It was bent and cracked in several pieces, and was likely damaged beyond repair.
Adding insult to injury, Randall had just sold the sculpture to a buyer in Minnesota, but when he came to load up the work, he couldn’t find it.“I was a little confused. At first, I thought maybe someone had stolen it which maybe would be better,” said Randall. "I’m pretty sure the client doesn’t want a sculpture that was thrown into a ditch, so probably the sale’s a wash.“
Sean Matthews “Fair and Square” / mother and child
In August 2018, this sculpture was damaged within 10 minutes of being put on view at the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Matthews’ exhibition “Recycled Play,” which converts children’s toys into conceptual art, included “Fair and Square,” an installation in which a pair of playground swings hang in mid-air on soldered chains, appearing frozen in motion. At the exhibition’s opening, a mother and daughter - thinking the installation was interactive - proceeded to use the swings.
The work was damaged beyond repair. The artist, however, decided to leave the work as it was, adding a steel fence and posting a photograph of the work in its original fashion next to the now-damaged installation.
Lauren Nye, the Susquehanna’s director of exhibitions, said she would not be pursuing financial repercussions against the mother and child. Nye also released a statement on behalf of the art museum:
The museum regrets the unfortunate occurrence regarding Sean Matthew’s Recycled Play exhibition. Instances such as this are the reason that museums and cultural institutions of all types have insurance, and we have begun the process with our insurance company to rectify this situation appropriately.
There are important reasons that institutions ask visitors not to handle artwork, the most important of which is to keep the works and the viewers safe. During the installation process, the decision was made by the artist and the staff to not provide physical barriers that would separate viewers from this work to preserve the original design of the exhibition. In response to this incident, we have engaged our staff and volunteers in rigorous discussion about visitor safety and procedures. We have also increased signage in this exhibition indicating that work should not be touched. We urge the public to be conscientious during their visits to art and historical institutions, to preserve the collections on view and insure the safety of all.
Albrecht Dürer, “The Lamentation of Christ (detail)” (1500) / acid
In April 1988, serial vandal
poured sulfuric acid over three major works by Albrecht Dürer while visiting the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (“Paumgartner Altar”, “Lamentation of Christ,” and “Maria as Sorrowful Mother”).
Bohlmann was convicted in 1989 for harming property damage and given two years imprisonment, followed by placement in a district mental hospital.
In May 2018, a 5-year-old boy inadvertently destroyed this figurative glass sculpture while on view at the Tomahawk Ridge Community Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Surveillance video shows the boy grabbing the sculpture near its waist and putting his arms around it briefly before it crashes to the floor.
The boy’s mother, Sarah Goodman, said her son approached the work as her family was preparing to leave a wedding reception.
“He probably hugged it,” Goodman said. “Maybe my son hugged a torso because he’s a loving, sweet, nice boy who just graduated from preschool.”
As the sculpture had not been insured, the boy’s parents were sent a letter accusing them of negligence, along with a bill for $132,000.
For her part, Goodman said, “It’s clear accidents happen and this was an accident. I don’t want to diminish the value of their art, but I can’t pay for that.” She also said the artwork “needed to be cemented” or kept in a case, saying it was a safety hazard for her son and other children at the venue that day. “They obviously didn’t secure it safely,” she said.
In June 2018, a well-intentioned priest made an unauthorized attempt to restore this 16th-century polychrome sculpture of Saint George, which is housed in the Church of St. Michael in Estella, Spain.
The town’s mayor said the priest decided to renovate the carving without consulting or informing the city council, “something he should have done by law."Rather than professional restoration artists, the priest hired "an academy of crafts” to perform the task. As a result, the statue, which had turned a dark brown with age, featured a pink-faced St. George wearing a flashy red and gray armor suit.
“I do not doubt the good intentions of both the pastor and the person in charge of desecrating this work of art through inappropriate techniques, but the negligence of both is very serious and can not be excused by good intentions alone.”
UPDATE: In June 2018, a New York judge upheld the $6.75M in damages awarded to graffiti artists in a ruling against developer Gerald Wolkoff, who had destroyed numerous murals at the 5Pointz site in Queens, NY.
The judge’s decision cited the VARA (Visual Artists Rights Act), finding that Wolkoff’s destruction of the 5Pointz murals was a violation of the artists’ rights.
The decision is a landmark ruling for graffiti artists. In an accompanying appendix, the judge cited the opinions of art experts and art publications, noting that it had been “to Wolkoff’s delight [that the art at 5Pointz] was perhaps principally responsible for transforming his crime-infested neighborhood and dilapidated warehouse buildings into what became recognized as arguably the world’s premium and largest outdoor museum of quality aerosol art.”
A judge’s order will send to trial a suit by a group of graffiti artists against a real estate owner who destroyed their murals at the 5Pointz site in Queens, New York.
After a four-year battle, Senior US District Judge Frederic Block’s order, filed March 31, 2017, grants the 5Pointz graffiti artists’ right to sue under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
Curated by a graffiti artist named Meres One (Jonathan Cohen) since 2002, the colorful murals were a reminder of a grittier past in a gentrified neighborhood bustling with new high-rise construction. They attracted tourists by the busload and featured works by artists from as far away as Australia and Japan. Graffiti artists had been plastering the walls with their works since 1993.
When Wolkoff resolved to destroy the buildings to make way for a new residential development, artists brought suit to stop him in order to preserve their artworks, asserting a claim under VARA as well as “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” conversion, and property damage. Their case was thrown out, and, without warning one night during November 2013, the owners whitewashed the murals, erasing, as the artists’ spokeswoman told the New York Times, the work of at least 1,500 artists. The abrupt erasure allowed the artists no time to document or preserve their work.
“The court’s order denying dismissal of our client’s claims is a groundbreaking decision for aerosol artists around the country,” said Eric Down of Eisenberg & Down, the firm that is representing the artists. “The message is that if you destroy art protected by federal law, you will be held responsible for your actions…We are confident that at trial both the artists and their work will be determined to be of recognized stature.”
As Amy Adler, law professor at New York University, observed in a phone interview, “Key in this matter is whether the works are of recognized stature, but the statute doesn’t define recognized stature and there’s not a lot of precedent since it’s not a heavily litigated area like fair use. And it’s not necessarily determined by the criteria that the art world would apply.”
Lorenzo Costa, “The Holy Family” (1490-1510) / unknown instrument
In September 1969, an unidentified party inflicted large scratches onto the surfaces of five paintings on view at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Among those damaged works was Costa’s 15th-century oil painting, which was later restored and placed back on public display.
Ilya Repin “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” (1885) / metal pole
In May 2018, this work was attacked while on view at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.
The attacker, identified as 37-year-old Igor Podporin, used a metal security pole to land several blows to the painting, slashing the canvas in three places and badly damaging the frame.
In a video released by the Interior Ministry, Podporin later said he’d struck the painting because he felt “overwhelmed” after drinking more than two shots of vodka in the museum’s cafe. “I came to look at the painting,” he told the police. “I wanted to leave, but then dropped into the buffet and drank 100 grams of vodka. I don’t drink vodka, and became overwhelmed by something.”
But at his arraignment, Podporin recanted, admitting that he was motivated by nationalist ideology, not drunkenness. According to historical accounts, Ivan the Terrible killed his son in 1581 by hitting him over the head with a staff during a heated argument. Today, the incident is disputed by some historians and Russian nationalists, who believe the West has exaggerated the ruler’s conduct to negatively portray the country. Last year, even President Vladimir Putin reportedly expressed doubt over the tsar’s guilt. “The painting is a lie,” Podporin said in court. “He [Tsar Ivan the Terrible] is ranked among the community of saints.”
Ivan Melnikov, a human rights officer who visited Podporin in custody, said Podporin was concerned about how the painting would influence foreigners’ views of Russia. “When I got to the Tretyakov I couldn’t stop myself,” he reportedly told the officer. “Foreigners go there and look at it. What will they think about our Russian tsar? About us? It’s a provocation against the Russian people so that people view us badly.”
This was confirmed by gallery curator Tatyana Gorodkova, who was on-site at the time, as she heard Podporin shout that Ivan the Terrible did not kill his son as he struck the painting.
Though the damage was considerable, officials believed the work could be restored, at which point it would be reinstalled under bullet-proof glass.
This is actually the second time the painting has been attacked: In 1913, the work was damaged - this time by a knife - by a man who was later deemed mentally ill. Repin, who was alive at the time, was able to restore the canvas himself. Read more about that incident HERE.
In May 2018, Houston’s Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational venue created for prayer and meditation, was vandalized by unknown parties.
White paint was spilled near the Chapel’s entrance and in the reflection pool surrounding the Barnett Newman sculpture, “The Broken Obelisk,” which is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. Handbills were also strewn around the grounds and pool that read, “It’s okay to be white.”
The Chapel closed temporarily as staff cleaned up the site. The paint was cleaned without the pool having to be drained; neither “The Broken Obelisk” nor the building sustained permanent damage.
John Singer Sargent RA, “Portrait of Henry James O.M.” / meat cleaver
In May 1914, this painting was attacked while on view at England’s Royal Academy. As reported by The Daily Telegraph: “About half-past one, when the attendance was thinning for lunch, the crash of glass was heard, and an elderly white-haired woman was seen to be hacking at the Sargent portrait with a butcher’s cleaver.”
The assailant was later identified as Mary Wood (an alias of Mary Aldham), a suffragette; as she slashed the portrait, Wood was heard to repeatedly shout, “Votes for Women!”
On site, her act was greeted by fellow visitors – who, many newspapers were keen to stress, were predominantly women – with cries of “Lynch her!” and “Turn her out!” The Daily Sketch reported that one visitor “pressed through the crowd, and aimed a blow at her. A man who put his arm in front of her to protect her was mobbed, and his glasses were knocked off and smashed.” According to The Daily Telegraph, this man, deemed a suffragette apologist, ‘was seized, amid cheers and groans, and his silk hat was sent flying.“
For her part, Wood later wrote, “I have tried to destroy a valuable picture because I wish to show the public that they have no security for their property nor for their art treasures until women are given the political freedom.”
George Romney, “John Bensley Thornhill” (1784) / meat cleaver
In June 1914, this work was damaged while on view at England’s Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Bertha Ryland, a Birmingham member of the Women’s Social & Political Union, entered the gallery and attacked the painting with a meat clever which she’d hidden beneath her coat, inflicting three large gashes in the canvas.
While it’s unclear why Ryland chose this particular painting, but Ryland had a note in her pocket explaining her actions: “I attack this work of art deliberately as a protest against the Government’s criminal injustice in denying women the vote, and also against the Government’s brutal injustice in imprisoning, forcibly feeding, and drugging Suffragist militants, while allowing Ulster militants to go free”
Ryland was arrested but ultimately not charged; the painting was eventually restored.
In May 2018, this painting was removed from a scheduled auction at Christie’s after it was “accidentally damaged” at the presale exhibition.
“After consultation with the consignor today, the painting has been withdrawn from Christie’s May 15 sale to allow the restoration process to begin,” the auction house said. “We have taken immediate measures to remedy the matter in partnership with our client. No further information is available at this time.”
While both the nature of the damage and the identity of the client were not revealed, sources identify the unnamed client as casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini “Santa Bibiana” (1624) / movers
In February 2018, this marble sculpture was damaged when workers accidentally snapped off the ring finger of the figure’s right hand. The work had been lent to Rome’s Galleria Borghese for an exhibition running through February 20; in the process of returning the sculpture in the Church of Santa Bibiana, the digit was broken off. The reinstalled but damaged work remained on view until April, when visitors noticed the injury and reported it to officials. The missing finger was then reattached.
The incident reinforced an ongoing debate in the Italian art world on whether works, particularly old or rare pieces, should be lent for exhibitions at all, given the risks. “We know that moving works of art is always a huge stress for them,” said Professor Giovan Battista Fidanza. When a work of art is damaged, even if later repaired, “the integrity of the work is lost forever,” he said. The broken finger “is a wound to the Baroque era.”
In February 2018, an unidentified man visiting Prager’s exhibition “In the Pink” at New York gallery The Hole placed his hand on at least one of Prager’s paintings and proceeded to wipe colorful streaks of paint on surfaces throughout the gallery, including walls, columns and a bench.
The aftermath was recorded by vlogger James Kalm, who later described the scene: “Wandering through the show initially, I didn’t see anything out of order,” Kalm told Hyperallergic. “Then doing a closing shot I see a gallery attendant cleaning off a bench, and realize someone is doing a Jack the Smearer routine, smushing their hand in the paintings and slathering it around the gallery. I noticed smears on a bench, the walls, and on a column. I did speak with [the gallery’s director] Raymond Bulman and he said he’d spotted the culprit, identified him by his paint-stained hands, and thrown him out of the gallery.”
Given the lush, textured surfaces of Prager’s work, it wasn’t immediately clear which painting(s) had been involved. As Kalm added, “I’ve since heard that other people have unintentionally backed into the paintings, while taking selfies and other meshugas.”
In March 2015, a series of works on view in Smith’s exhibition “Speaking OUT” were vandalized while on view at the University of Connecticut’s student union art gallery. Unidentified parties broke into the gallery after hours and used black markers to deface multiple framed photographs, which featured portraits and personal statements from members of the LGBTQ community.
“There [was] a binder [left in the exhibit] that says ‘God hates the gays,’ two prints have penises on them and I was given a mustache,” said Smith. “If the prints themseleves get damaged, it’s a big deal. They are one-of-a-kind, handprinted in an almost obsolete darkroom machine. And each image comes with a handwritten message by the subjects, some up to 13 years ago.”
From appearances, the perpetrators did not damage the prints themselves, merely their frames and glass casing. New frames were purchased to replace those damaged in the incident; the assailants remain unidentified.
In June 2013, this work was damaged while on view at London’s National Gallery.
Paul Douglas Manning, 57, of Sheffield, was arrested on-site after gluing a small photo to the canvas, bearing the image of a young boy (whose face is pixelated in the above detail image for the sake of anonymity).
Manning claimed to be a supporter of Fathers4Justice, a father’s rights organization based in the UK. A “desperate dad,” Manning hoped his act would draw attention to the issue of shared parenting.
The damage to the painting was minimal and quickly restored; the work was put back on public view the same day.