Art Restoration Disasters (and Miracles!)

Emilie Trice | March 19, 2021 (Updated August 31, 2021)

Руслан Гамзалиев on Unsplash


Stories of artworks that were brought back to life (sort of) and tips on what to do if your artwork is damaged. 

Art restoration has never been a particularly trendy topic, but some recent fails have been so epic in nature that they immediately went viral. We’ve all seen the memes of disastrous attempts to restore historic (often religious) works of art — Ecce Homo and Immaculate Conception being perhaps the two most famous — which resulted in Spain deciding to overhaul its art restoration laws in 2020. But, there have been some other truly mind-boggling stories of incredibly damaged artworks, as well as art restorations gone horribly (and, sometimes, hilariously) awry. 

Did you hear the one about the Christo pieces that were unwrapped in customs? True story. Or that time the Las Vegas casino owner and billionaire Steve Wynn accidentally put his elbow through a Picasso worth over $130 million? Or the “starving artist” who ate the banana duct taped to the wall (also known as Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan) at Art Basel Miami in 2019? That last one had an unusually happy ending: the gallery which exhibited the work, Emmanuel Perrotin, ultimately declined to press charges against the artist, who said he did it because he was “hungry” and became an instant internet sensation. 

Who’s Afraid of Art Restoration?

The excellent podcast 99% Invisible has a delightfully debaucherous episode entitled, “The Many Deaths of a Painting,” about the artwork Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, by American post-war artist Barnett Newman. The painting, a minimalist composition of only three primary colors — but predominantly red — was so upsetting to visitors at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (which acquired the work in 1969) that several recounted becoming physically ill and/or enraged at the mere sight of it. 

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III by Barnett Newman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980’s, while the painting was on view, a 30 year-old struggling artist named Gerard Jan van Bladeren attacked it with a box-cutter, slashing the center of the canvas. According to reports, “When the slashes were added all up together, they measured nearly fifty feet long.” But, this is only the beginning of the story, as the process to restore the painting ended up being just as controversial as the initial vandalism. 

All told, the restoration took four years and ultimately cost the museum more than $1 million, drawing them into a lengthy defamation lawsuit with the work’s conservator, Daniel Goldreyer. When the Stedelijk initially hired Goldreyer, he assured the museum that he could repair the painting “within 98% accuracy.” However, when the work was finally revealed post-restoration, it seemed different somehow — the paint appeared flatter, more opaque and without the “shimmering quality to the red that gave it a sense of depth” before the attack.  

Long story short, the Stedelijk had the painting forensically investigated and were told that the restorer had simply used a basic paint roller to cover the entire surface of the canvas with matte house paint, a claim he vehemently denied. Still, the painting was noticeably different and yet, it still had the same effect.

In 1997, eleven years after his initial assault, van Bladeren returned to the Stedelijk, intent on slashing the work AGAIN. Fortunately, the painting was not on view. Unfortunately, another Newman painting was on view and van Bladeren handily took his box-cutter to that work instead. (The Dutch courts ultimately declared him as psychiatrically unfit and he was sent to a mental institution.) Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III has since been exhibited by the Stedelijk without incident, for now. 


“An Artwork is Never Finished”: One Artist’s Story of Restoration Done Right

David Paul Kay in his NYC studio. Photo by Steven Gabriel Bosque.

If a painting can be slashed while hanging in a museum, it’s obviously even more at risk when loaned to a friend. This is the case of a painting entitled Scream by David Paul Kay, a New York City-based artist, who received a call from an art restorer after his work was delivered for repair with a massive X slashed through the center of the canvas. 

The collector who had purchased the piece had apparently loaned it to a friend to hang in his new apartment, out of sheer kindness and by no means permanently. Unfortunately, that friend subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and attacked the work in his own home. (This all took place during the pandemic, an exceptionally stressful time for everyone, but especially for people with pre-existing psychiatric conditions.) 

As horrible as this all sounds, however, David found a certain cosmic beauty in this chain of events, tragic as they were, and was able to empathize with his work’s attacker. According to David, the painting was originally created at a time in his life when his own mental health was suffering, hence the title (and the subject matter). In David’s eyes, this synergy added a new layer of emotional symbolism and meta-history to the artwork.

“Was I upset when I learned of the damage? No, not really,” he says. “I approached it the same way I approach everything in my life — with curiosity. I was actually really happy that the restorer reached out to me directly. As long as I’m alive, I want to help preserve my own work and contribute to its longevity.” 

David restoring his painting Scream. Photo courtesy of David Paul Kay.

David and the restorer, Andrei Givotovsky, worked together to complete the repair and the painting was returned to the original (and rightful) owner. 

David says the situation actually brought him and the collector closer together in a way — a silver lining of sorts. That collector had been a long-standing supporter of David’s art career and is someone David considers a friend, now even more so than before the incident. 

The experience cemented certain convictions he already had about an artwork’s lifecycle. “I believe that an artwork is never finished,” David explains, “It lives on and it evolves.”

David Paul Kay's painting Scream, pre- and post-restoration.


What To Do If Your Artwork is Damaged

These stories illuminate certain undeniable truths about the nature of fine art restoration and highlight important things to consider when having art from your own collection restored. Artworks are not impervious to human error, and that includes anytime an artwork is shipped, de-/re-installed, cleaned or put on view to the general public. 

Accidents are a part of life and mistakes happen. That being said, there are some general rules to follow when caring for an artwork that has suffered any type of damage, from minor scrapes to major tears. Artwork Archive reached out to Andrei Givotovsky, proprietor of Art Restoration NYC (and the restorer who helped David Paul Kay bring his painting back to life), to learn more about the restoration process and what to do if your artwork is damaged. 

Document the damage. Then document it some more. 

You will need to take extensive photos of the damage and recount how the damage took place with as much detail as possible, in writing. A database like Artwork Archive will help you keep detailed condition reports, images of any damage, and all other related documents in order, providing a comprehensive overview of an artwork’s entire history. 

You will need to send photos of the damage to any restorer you ultimately hire (many require such documentation prior to providing an estimate), as well as to your insurance company if you intend to file a claim. 

According to Andrei, “Most people want estimates before they bring in painting. I ask for photos of the front and back of the artwork and its measurements. Billing for me is by the job. But that fee has been established by past experience which is the hours and level of difficulty." 

"I also need to know who the owner of the painting is — sometimes a contractor wants to bring a painting they damaged while working in an apartment. They may not want the owner to know. This would be a legal and ethical problem."

"I also ask for general information about the artworks and the materials used: Do they know if it is oil paint or acrylic, for example? I need to know who the artist is/was (if known) and, if possible, the date/year the artwork was created.”

Submit any documentation to your insurance company ASAP — the sooner after the incident, the better — and determine if restoration even makes sense.

As soon as you know that you want to file an insurance claim, it’s best to reach out to your insurer immediately. 

Andrei concurs, “It is up to the client or insurance company to determine if a restoration is worth it. Sometimes I recommend against a restoration because I don’t think the client will be happy with the results achievable within a reasonable period of time and fee. A museum can spend years working on an important painting."

"I generally ask: What is the purpose of the restoration? Prepare for auction sale? After auction purchase to hang on their wall? An insurance settlement, or a claim? An inheritance?" 

"A portrait of an ancestor probably has no resale value, but is always worth restoring. Even minor works that the owner has been living with their whole life can achieve the status of a family member.”

Find a restorer who specializes in the same medium as your damaged artwork.

A painting restorer is obviously not the person to call if your Ming vase is damaged and vice versa. Do your homework on nearby restorers who specialize in the type of art you’re hoping to have repaired. The closer in proximity to you, the better, as additional transport might only exacerbate the delicate condition of your artwork. 

Andrei explains, “Generally speaking, I only restore easel paintings on canvas or board. Paper based watercolors or prints are outside my specialty."

"There are professional standards such as using reversible treatments and not overpainting original paint, but restoration is a humanistic activity and is subject to interpretation. I generally would tell clients that I greatly improve the looks of paintings in need of treatment. However, I am not a magician."

Consider contacting the gallery and/or artist directly.

The artist who created the artwork in question, as well as the gallery that initially sold it, will likely know details about how the work was produced that the restorer will need to know to perform their job to the best of their ability. Some artists, like David Paul Kay, may even offer to help restore the painting as much as they can themselves, or be amenable to working together with a restorer. It’s a case-by-case situation, but it’s usually worth a try. 

Don’t despair!

Sometimes, a damaged artwork can actually accrue in value and/or significant despite the damage (and sometimes, because of it!). Steve Wynn ultimately sold the Picasso he put his elbow through for $155 million to hedge fund manager and art collector Steve Cohen. That’s an astounding $16 million more than it was reportedly worth at the time of the incident, which took place seven years prior. 

And those viral Spanish restoration fails? They have actually increased tourism to the area, significantly. Two years after the memes of Ecce Homo made the internet rounds, The New York Times reported that 150,000 tourists flocked to Borja, Spain, to see the updated work of biblical art with their own eyes. What was once considered disasterous, proved, in the end, to be a kind of god-send for the tiny Spanish town. 

So, don't lose hope! Your damaged artwork —and any ensuing restoration — could be a blessing in disguise.

After all, everyone loves a great story.

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