5 Priceless Works of Art Destroyed by Unintentional Hilarity

No slapstick movie is complete without at least one scene where the buffoonish main character encounters a priceless work of art and then accidentally destroys it in some hilarious way (preferably with the involvement of a runaway monkey). Yet, as we have established previously, a shocking number of the world's great pieces have in fact been ruined by something exactly that ridiculous.

#5. Picasso's La Reve Gets Elbowed


Do you ever get excited when talking, start gesturing too much with your hands and accidentally knock something off a table? Was the thing you broke a work of art worth $140 million? No?

That's pretty much what happened with Picasso's La Reve. When the artist was 50 years old, he painted a portrait of his 22-year-old mistress Marie-Therese Walter, presumably because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, and also because nailing a 22-year-old at 50 is something that deserves to be documented. As an Easter egg, Picasso even painted half of her face in the shape of a semi-flaccid or semi-erect penis (depending on your level of penis pessimism).

Le Reve
We tend to be penis optimists.

To date, no other artist has found a more succinct way to announce "I hit that" than painting his own genitals draped across the head of his girlfriend.

So What Happened?

Steve Wynn, the man who owns half of Las Vegas and is the 512th richest person in the world, owned the painting in 2006 and even considered naming one of his hotels after it. Despite it being one of his favorites, he was prepping to sell it for $139 million, a deal that would have made it the most expensive piece of art in existence. Here are two other facts that are pertinent to this story: Steve Wynn suffered from retinitis, which affected his peripheral vision, and Steve Wynn loved to gesture while he talked.

Restless hand syndrome is a serious condition that affects dozens of casino owners worldwide.

He had brought a few friends up to see the painting the weekend before it was set to sell, and while he was standing in front of it, expounding on the relationship between Picasso and the dick-faced mistress, he gestured too aggressively and threw his elbow right through the canvas.

Fortunately, the elbow didn't completely ruin the painting. La Reve has been restored, but the damage was done. The refurbished portrait has since been valued at only $90 million, which means that in a single second, Steve Wynn had given Marie-Therese a hole in her arm just big enough to suck $49 million worth of artistry out of the rest of the picture.

What's worse is that the hole was also big enough that it must have been impossible to explain to the insurance company without them wondering whether or not Steve Wynn tried to fuck his favorite art piece before selling it.

#4. Qing Dynasty Vases Are Victims of Clumsiness

Wikipedia Commons

In the fast-paced, mad world of antique ceramic sales, Qing Dynasty vases are the equivalent of grade A heroin. Their decorations are so minute and intricate that they sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, and occasionally for $69 million.

New York Times
"But we can't put it under plexiglass, because that would be expensive."

Given how precious they are, you'd think that a museum with a few on exhibit would invest in some glass cases, but not the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. No, the antique ceramic curators there needed the rush of danger just to feel alive. They weren't just showcasing three Qing vases -- 300 years old and estimated to cost between $400,000 and $500,000 -- without any protection; they kept them on an unguarded windowsill at the base of a staircase.

Fitzwilliam Museum
Sadly, the "No Stooging" sign they put up went unheeded.

You know where this is going.

So What Happened?

Sure enough, someone toppled down the stairs and shattered the vases into smithereens. Nick Flynn, a museum visitor, stood at the top of the stairs and dove head first into the exhibit at the bottom, presumably because he hates Chinese antiquity more than he values his own life. He smashed all three vases, then stood, dusted himself off and walked out the front door.

Chris Radburn, via Guardian
"Pobody's nerfect!"

It wasn't until he saw himself on the news crumpled at the bottom of the staircase in a pile of shards and the message "Have you seen this man?" that he knew it might be a big deal. And even then he didn't turn himself in; instead, he hid out for three months before a team of 25 police officers broke down his door and arrested him.

Miraculously, the vases have been entirely glued back together and returned to the museum, but people aren't coming to see the artifacts anymore -- they are coming to see the staircase and the windowsill where Nick Flynn tripped on his own shoelace and created a piece of slapstick that surely was worth more than everything in that museum combined.

Fitzwilliam Museum
It turns out comedy is priceless. But only because the vases weren't insured.

#3. Lucien Freud's Paintings Are in a Landfill Somewhere

To say that paintings by Lucien Freud are not cheap would be a dramatic understatement. His pieces are so expensive that Freud made history by selling one of his own pieces at the highest price ($33 million) for a work by a living artist. You may be wondering what a $33 million painting might look like. Well, behold:

Wikipedia Commons
You can stop beholding now.

The point being that every piece by Freud, including fat, naked women sleeping on what looks like a fraternity couch, is guaranteed to sell for over six figures. It's surprising, then, that his paintings keep disappearing in trash dumps.

So What Happened?

In 2000, an oil painting of plants by Freud was shipped to Sotheby's auction house, where it was going up for sale. The painting, inside a wooden crate suitable for travel, arrived in the storeroom at Sotheby's, where it was promptly removed again by two porters who mistook it for an empty crate and dumped it in a garbage crusher. No one could track down the remnants, either, because no one realized the problem until after the painting was on its way to an incinerator. Sotheby's has apparently never seen a single sitcom, because they made no effort to paint another version really quick before the showing.

"Something still seems off."

Fortunately, that painting was only worth about $180,000, which pales in comparison to the portrait Freud did of famous antique book dealer Bernard Breslauer. The painting was never appraised, but experts suspect it would have been priced in the millions; that is, until Breslauer himself destroyed it because he thought Freud had painted him with a double chin.

That's right, the man in the portrait and owner of the painting destroyed a piece worth more than the economy of a small country because the artist painted his chin funny. And yet, as far as we know, the naked woman in the painting above never complained.

This is Freud's self-portrait, proof that he didn't make anyone look good.

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