After Taiwan painting accident, five other art blunders

From Steve Wynn's costly elbow through a Picasso to the Spanish pensioner who made a fresco of Christ look like a monkey, we remember art mishaps in the wake of this week's incident in which a boy tripped and punched a hole in a 17th-century Italian painting on show in Taipei

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 1:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 8:22pm

The incident in Taiwan this week in which a 12-year-old boy, drink in hand, stumbled and tore a hole in a 350-year-old painting by Paolo Porpora, valued at US$1.5 million, on show at a Taipei gallery is not the first time human error has played a hand – or should we say elbow? – in some art blunders.  

READ MORE: Watch moment Taiwan boy trips and punches hole in prized US$1.5 million Italian painting at exhibition

In 2006, casino magnate Steve Wynn literally knocked millions off the value of the 1932 painting Le Rêve by Spanish maestro Pablo Picasso after he accidentally put his elbow through it while showing it off to friends. The centrepiece of the art collection displayed at Wynn's Las Vegas casino  – he even considered naming his Wynn Las Vegas resort after the painting – he was ready to sell the piece for US$139 million (which at the time would have it the highest price paid for an artwork).  A day after negotiations over the sale the accident happened, creating a six-inch tear. After a US$90,000 repair job, the painting was revalued at US$85 million.  Billionaire US hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen, who was originally going to buy the painting of Picasso's mistress Marie-Therese Walter, eventually bought it in 2013 for US$155 million.

In 2004, an employee of Tate Britain disposed of a plastic bag of trash that was part of an exhibition, “Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art” by German artist and political activist Gustav Metzger. It wasn’t the only time an artist’s work has been mistaken for trash. In 2001 a janitor at London's Eyestorm Gallery cleared away an installation of beer bottles, ashtrays and coffee cups (the work was meant to represent the life of an artist) by British artist Damien Hirst. In 1986, a €400,000 (HK$3.57 million) grease stain by multi-media artist Joseph Beuys was mopped up in Duesseldorf, Germany; in 1973, two women cleaned up a baby bathtub Beuys had wrapped in gauze and bandages so they could use the container to wash dishes. An overzealous cleaner elsewhere in Germany ruined a piece by German artist Martin Kippenberger, widely regarded as one of the most talented artists of his generation until his death in 1997. The piece, When it Starts Dripping From the Ceiling, and worth £690,000 (HK$8.4 million), comprised a rubber trough underneath a rickety wooden tower. Inside the trough, Kippenberger had spread paint. The cleaner scrubbed it clean.

In 2000, bungling porters at London’s Sotheby’s auction house crushed a Lucian Freud self-portrait valued at £100,000. The painting, Reflection, had been delivered to the Bond Street auctioneers in a protective case, but the staff thought it was empty and put it in a refuse crusher. The German-born British painter, who died in 2011, is known for his thickly painted portraits and figure paintings, his canvases selling for millions of dollars. One of his paintings, though, was destroyed by the person it depicted  – millionaire antiques book dealer Bernard Breslauer – because he didn’t like how his double chin looked. 

Spanish pensioner Cecilia Giménez made global headlines in 2012 when she took it upon herself to touch up the painting Ecce Homo (Behold The Man), which was hanging in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy Church in the northern Spanish town of Borja. The changes made to the 120-year-old painting turned the face of Jesus into what looks more like a monkey face. But Gimenez had the last laugh. Officials in Borja said the fresco drew thousands of visitors and raised thousands of dollars for a local charity.

In 2006, three Qing dynasty Chinese vases, the drawcard of the Fitzwilliam Museum in the English city of Cambridge were smashed when visitor Nick Flynn tripped on a shoelace and fell down a staircase, bringing the vases down with him. The vases dated from the last years of the reign of the emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), and were valued at around £500,000. Flynn was banned from visiting the museum; the vases, which had been sitting on a museum windowsill since 1948, were successfully restored and put back on display - behind a protective case.