Art

This is What Happens if You Accidentally Destroy a Priceless Museum Artefact

Last week, a tourist in Italy snapped the toes off a 200-year-old statue while posing for a photo. We explore what usually happens next in such situations.
August 5, 2020, 11:02am
art sculptures museum
Photo courtesy of Lizzie George / Unsplash

Museums will never stop being fascinating. Each antiquity in there has a story to tell and there are years and years of history contained in one single building. You see the same pieces of art people who lived hundreds of years before you made and saw—the same relics people who will come years after you will see. It, after all, is a little enchanting that the same sculptures, paintings, and relics have survived multiple tragedies just to stand there right in front of you. 

Until that one idiot more interested in taking a selfie or a photo destroys that very relic in a matter of seconds because they didn’t care enough to pay attention to what they were doing. 

This is exactly what happened in Italy a few days ago.

A 50-year-old Austrian tourist in northern Italy’s famous Gipsoteca Museum broke three toes off a 200-year-old plaster cast model of Antonio Canova's statue of Paolina Bonaparte, as he posed for a photo with the sculpture. He was caught on a surveillance camera jumping onto the statue's base when the move inadvertently snapped its toes. The man was with a group of eight Austrian tourists and broke away to have a photo taken of himself "sprawled over the statue" which led to three toes of the statue breaking and other possible damage to the base of the sculpture that is yet to be ascertained. 

When people around came to know about it, they were rightfully pissed off with this man. Vittorio Sgarbi, the president of the Antonio Canova Foundation wrote in a Facebook post that he asked police for "clarity and rigor” in the investigation. The court, however, is still deciding whether to press charges. The Austrian man confessed and repented for the stupid move. But this is not the first time a valuable piece of artwork has been damaged in a careless attempt or by accident. While this negligent man would probably walk free from the scene of the damage, it does raise the question: What happens if you accidentally end up destroying a priceless artwork in a museum?

Turns out, past cases show that the answer to that is: not much. That is, as long as it is accidental—even if there is a fair bit of negligence involved. And if you aren’t counting the embarrassment that comes from being “that person” who robs the world of an irreplaceable part of history. 

Museums and galleries almost always have insurance to cover most such damages, and the people running the museums do understand that accidents happen. In nearly every cringing case of accidental art destruction that we looked up, no charges were pressed by either the museum or the owner of the art in question. The worst that seems to have happened in such scenarios is that the person in question had to face some embarrassment and a ban from the museum.

In 2006, a man tripped over his shoelace while walking around the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and knocked over three 17th century vases, worth about £175,000—like a set of the most expensive dominoes ever. The man was arrested on a charge of criminal damage and spent a night in jail. The museum, however, decided not to press charges or even identify the man who had managed to destroy the vases that had survived over four centuries. Their official response was merely a letter advising him “not to visit the museum again in the near future.” So, technically, he didn’t even get banned. He was just asked to abstain from visiting. For a while.

Then, in 2015, a 12-year-old boy in Taiwan tripped while visiting an art exhibition, with a drink in one hand. During his fall, he managed to punch a hole through a painting that was over 300 years old and valued at about $1,500,000. The organisers of the exhibition assured the boy and his family that they wouldn’t be liable to pay any damages, and weren’t even in any legal trouble. One of them even publicly insisted that the boy wasn’t to blame.

Some, in fact, even go above and beyond. In 2015, a young boy of five bumped into a 221-year-old puzzle jug at a museum a little north of London. The jug crashed and broke into 65 pieces. While the family was mortified from the accident and left the museum, the boy was “devastated”. The museum, instead of charging the family, repaired the jug. They then went on a quest to find the boy who had broken it—not to charge him with any accusation but just for him to see the restored piece of pottery. Apparently, they were just concerned about the child. 

But these are pure accidents. What about when the accidents are rooted in negligence? It seems like museums and galleries still mostly seem hesitant to take strict action. The several selfie-related destructions of art that have become a thing of recent times show that while authorities do apprehend these careless visitors, they often don’t take any strict action against them. “Generally speaking, they’re invitees to the premises,” said Colin Quinn, director of claims at AXA Art Americas Corporation to Artsy. And considering artefacts are usually covered by insurance companies, it’s these companies that take on the tab. 

A clock made by the artist James Borden hung in Columbia Pennsylvania’s National Watch and Clock Museum for over two decades before being destroyed. It met its end when an elderly couple began touching and pulling on its various bits, to try and see what the clock looked like when working. This ultimately caused the clock to come crashing down. Even then, the museum chose not to press any charges nor seek compensation for the damages. 

In 2016, a 91-year-old woman visiting a museum in Nuremberg defaced a piece called "Reading-work-piece," a 1965 artwork. Part of it looks like a partially filled-out crossword, accompanied by the phrase “insert words.” Turns out, this elderly lady took this request very seriously, found a ballpoint pen, and began filling out the crossword. The curators of the museum did report this woman—but only for insurance reasons. She was investigated for damage to property, but there was no malicious intent found. 

And so, most museums and galleries take the destruction or damage of their work in their stride if done accidentally. The most that’s likely to happen is you’d have to go through an investigation. 

Well, unless you are this one unlucky child whose parents got hit with a $132,000 claim in 2018. Their five-year-old son had knocked over an art sculpture on display at a local community centre, and the sculpture’s artist himself had examined the piece himself and concluded that it was irreparable.

And so in order to never reach a position where you have to buy what you break, please try not to destroy any ancient things. The future generations—if there are any, considering the state of the planet—would be grateful to not have too many holes in whatever heritage is left for them. After all, these pieces haven’t survived half a millennium just to be damaged by a careless selfie fanatic in 2020. 

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