The elbow felt round the world one year ago belonged to casino developer Steve Wynn, who, while showing off his Pablo Picasso masterpiece La Rêve to a group of friends that included Barbara Walters, Nora Ephron, Louise Grunwald and Georgette Mosbacher, gestured enthusiastically toward the painting and accidentally shoved his funny bone straight through the canvas. As Ephron would later describe it in an account published on the Huffington Post, the result was “a black hole the size of a silver dollar…with two three-inch-long rips coming off it in either direction.” Adding to the fuss, which was reported breathlessly by countless news outlets, was the ensuing cancellation of Wynn’s impending sale of the painting to financier Steven A. Cohen for $139 million—$90.6 million more than he had paid for the piece nine years earlier.
While Wynn’s debacle was clearly on the dramatic side, it wasn’t the first time a piece of art had suffered injury, either through negligence, ignorance or plain old bad luck. It is, tragically, not so rare for a masterpiece to lose millions in value or be demolished altogether.But only a handful of these cases—like the 2001 incident in which a Damien Hirst assemblage of ashtrays, cigarette butts and empty beer bottles was mistaken for trash by a janitor at London’s Eyestorm gallery and thrown out—ever make the papers.
“The stories are countless,” says gallery owner Zach Feuer. In fact, such a tragedy befell the very first piece of art he ever sold, though it was hardly a record-breaking sale. “My grandma bought a $600 Lansing-Dreiden piece from me, just to be nice. It was done with Sharpie on glass, and my grandmother didn’t believe it could really be so ephemeral. She was constantly touching it—every time I’d go to her house I’d see new fingerprints on it. One day she Windexed it, and that was the end.”
“Homes are not museum settings,” says Candace Worth, a New York–based art adviser, who tells of a plaster sculpture that recently fell off her client’s wall and shattered into pieces that were then swept up and disposed of by the maid. “In a gallery, walls are reinforced. Of course, there is a caliber of collectors who do now have homes like museums, but most of us don’t.”
Worth recently endured her own small tragedy when a worker in her house, eyeing a cardboard box he wanted to use and finding it empty save for what seemed to him a bit of rubbish, tossed out what was really her latest acquisition: a John Bock floor sculpture made of eggshells in a sewn felt sack. It broke like, well, eggshells. “It was a really beautiful, poetic small piece,” she says. “I was hysterical.”
“Everyone has that my-housekeeper-used-Pledge-on-my-Donald-Judd story,” says Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “People just don’t want to talk about them because they’re worried about affecting the value of their art.” Indeed, the issue of household staff overzealously cleaning fragile works is so common that the insurance corporation Chubb publishes a 10 Things You and Your Housekeeping Staff Should Know pamphlet in English and Spanish to distribute to its fine art customers. (An excerpt: “A piece of masking tape pressed to the floor to gather even the smallest fragments of that Tang dynasty horse might be the difference between a completely successful restoration and a disappointing one.”) Unfortunately, no one handed a copy to one contemporary art dealer’s cleaning lady before she reportedly put a Robert Gober stack of newspapers out with the recyclables. Artist Kiki Smith’s housekeeper also did not get the memo: “She knocked the head off a sculpture that a friend of mine made the first day she came to me. It was embarrassing to call up my friend and tell her—it wasn’t exactly fixable. Fortunately she was very gracious and made me a new one.”
It’s not just vacuum wielders who are threats. Many pieces have been injured at the hands of caterers, carpenters, dog sitters and air-conditioning technicians. But the bulk of damage, according to the major art insurers, happens during the shipping and installation processes. “Too often, people are cheap when it comes to shipping and installing, and they end up with ruined art,” says Feuer, who once sold a photograph to an inexperienced buyer who opened the packaging himself with a knife and ended up slicing into the image. “And I had someone else who spent between $12,000 and $15,000 on another photograph but didn’t want to pay $80 for delivery and $80 for hanging. He hung it himself and sure enough, a few hours later it fell off the wall and was totally wrecked.”
Worth recently helped a client buy a photograph that was mounted on a light box. An electrician who was hired to connect a wall switch to the outlet that the piece was plugged into thought it would be better to cut the wire coming out of the piece and try to incorporate it into the house’s existing wiring. “I had to bring it back to the artist and get the light box entirely re-engineered,” Worth explains.
As Chubb’s worldwide fine art manager, Dorit Straus regularly handles the claims of art collectors seeking compensation for damaged pieces. “We had a client who bought something at a major auction house, which then put it onto a truck for delivery without packing it in anything,” Straus says. “The mover lost his balance and stuck his hand through the painting.” She also had a client hire a mover who wore a large, protruding belt buckle that “got hooked” into the client’s newly acquired painting. “We have packers and shippers who we’ve vetted and we know can handle this type of thing,” she says. “But people take shortcuts.”
What is one to do when disaster strikes? If the piece is not completely totaled, and the artist is no longer living, the best hope for salvation is a top conservator. But beware: Even a piece that can be made to look as good as new may lose value. “If there’s a little bit of mold, say, from cleaning solution, along the rim that’s basically covered by the frame, the effect on value might be negligible,” says Katja Zigerlig, director of fine art insurance at AIG Private Client Group. “But if there’s a visible stain that needs to be fixed, it might go down 10 to 20 percent.” (Wynn’s La Rêve has depreciated considerably more. Though several insiders who’ve seen the painting since its repair have said it looks flawless, Wynn has said it is now valued at no more than $85 million.)
The best-case scenario is if the artist agrees to fix the piece himself, which isn’t uncommon. Photographs, of course, are the easiest to replace, though there are obstacles. “What if the piece was stolen or the collector isn’t being totally honest?” says Yossi Milo, whose gallery specializes in contemporary photography. “There’s a risk that two pictures of the same edition will come on the market, and that would be a terrible thing for the artist.” Recently Milo had a long-standing client who bought two Loretta Lux photos from an auction house and hung them side by side in his den. One of them soon fell off the wall and was ruined. The client ended up calling Milo for help. “Loretta asked him to send the photo to the gallery, and once she saw it she agreed to reprint it and issue the new one with the same number as the damaged one.” Generally, this process is smoothest when the buyer has gone through a dealer, who can contact the artist on the buyer’s behalf.
Still, calling up an artist and announcing that you knocked a limb off his sculpture is not a pleasant task. Many artists will find the recounting of even the most innocent, slapsticky accident unbearable. “When your child dies, I never heard a parent laugh,” Richard Tuttle says by e-mail. Others will shudder at the thought of revisiting work they completed long ago. “When you do something the first time, you have a genuine experience,” says Smith. “The second time you do it, it’s a job. Plus, some of what I did in the past—though I know it was an essential part of my journey—I now don’t like or am embarrassed by. Sometimes I wish my art would spontaneously combust in people’s houses!”
Even an artist fully willing to restore his own piece can be trouble. “Artists are pretty dangerous,” says Feuer, who won’t let them take pieces back to their own studios to restore them. “They’ll bang it up; they won’t pack it right. It’s easier to mishandle something when you think of it as your own piece, and artists sometimes don’t understand that someone other than themselves owns this now.”
Worst of all, though, is if an artist feels that the damage you’ve done to a piece has, even if it’s fixable, jeopardized its integrity. “Then they can renounce the piece under the Visual Artists Rights Act, which says a living artist must be consulted on restoration to their work,” says Chubb’s Straus. “If they do that, it becomes worthless.”
Fortunately, most damage to art is due to carelessness and poor choices—things collectors can control. “I was at a dinner party in the Hamptons this summer at the home of major collectors,” says Worth, “and I asked what they do about climate control and sun there, because I have clients who are beginning to bring their collections out East. And they were like, ‘Oh, we don’t care, we’re just buying for ourselves, we’re never going to sell.’ Yeah, they’re not going to sell, because they won’t be able to after they’ve ruined the pieces. And while it’s nice they’re not speculating—which none of the best collectors are—at the end of the day, you have a responsibility to those objects.”
“We had a collector who bought a 19th-century oil painting depicting a bathing scene,” says AIG’s Zigerlig. “He figured, What better place to put this than above my Jacuzzi tub? Needless to say, the steam caused all the paint to flake off and mold to grow, and by the time he contacted us, it was pretty much a total loss.”
But while collectors do have great control over the fate of their art, and the more dramatic, Wynn-type stories are fewer and farther between, hush-hush dinner-party conversations still abound. “I know of a collector who hired an exorcist who accidentally splashed holy water all over a valuable painting in the collector’s home—but how often is that kind of thing going to happen?” says a top art adviser, before reconsidering. “Though I guess if anyone’s going to be hiring exorcists, it’s the same crazy people who spend all their money on art.”