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.
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).
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.
Qing Dynasty Vases Are Victims of Clumsiness
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.
"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.
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.
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.
It turns out comedy is priceless. But only because the vases weren't insured.
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:
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.
Ancient Greek Marble Statues Keep Getting Ruined by Tourists and Staff
Throughout history, Britain has celebrated an illustrious career of discovering new cultures and civilizations, and then stealing all their stuff. So it's still a point of contention whether or not Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, legally acquired a collection of statues and friezes from the Parthenon in Greece, or if he just took them when no one was looking.
The British Empire was built around pointing in one direction and grabbing everything while the other guy looked away.
To his credit, when he visited Athens in the early 1800s, no one was making any effort to preserve the marble sculptures. The Acropolis was being used as a military fort, and any statues that fell were reconstituted as building material. The Parthenon had even been used as a gunpowder store a century earlier, and huge chunks of it had been destroyed during an explosion. Elgin persuaded the Ottomans to let him remove the marble works of art and ship them back to England, where they could be preserved and cared for in the British Museum until the end of time.
So What Happened?
Apparently the British Museum never accounted for awful children or general human clumsiness. Despite the statues surviving Turkish attacks, the Venetian invasion in Greece and a massive gunpowder explosion that blew the roof off the Parthenon, they were having a hard time staying in one piece in one of the best museums in the world.
We've seen Warhammer models age more gracefully.
In 1961, a couple of English kids were on a field trip from Hogwarts or wherever when they got into a fight. One of them threw the other against a centaur and broke the statue's leg. To this day it can't be fully fixed.
Then in 1981, a workman on the roof lost his balance and dropped a skylight on the head of one of the other statues. Even the works that haven't suffered accidental indignities have been vandalized and decorated with graffiti, and one statue was broken beyond repair by thieves who were trying to steal lead from its hoof.
You don't want to know what they did to the body. Although, since you use the Internet, you can probably guess.
But possibly the worst damage of all was done by the museum itself. In the 1930s, restorers tried to clean the yellow stains on each and every sculpture with steel wool to make them pure white. In the process, they removed 2.5 millimeters from the surface, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize it destroyed the finer details on every piece in the collection.
So we'll never know which one of these guys had the larger genitals.
Picasso's The Actor Is Torn in the Name of Love
Pablo Picasso had so many wives and mistresses throughout his life, we can probably assume that he would have been understanding if he knew one of his paintings was accidentally destroyed by someone thinking about love. Or, at the very least, fornication.
At 23, Picasso was still at least vaguely interested in maintaining a sense of realism in his paintings. The Actor is a 6-foot-by-4-foot portrait of a stage performer, one of the biggest paintings he completed at the time and worth over $100 million today. At least it would be, if it didn't have a 6-inch gash in it.
In Picasso's day, it was traditional for actors to wear jumpsuits made from the flesh of fallen actors.
So What Happened?
By now it should come as no surprise that museums are some of the most hazardous places to keep art. Adding another to the list, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the scene of The Actor's destruction. A student attending an art class was examining the painting when she stumbled into The Actor, putting a long tear in the bottom right corner.
"Well, hell. Coloring it in with a pen didn't help at all."
But that's not the whole story. Just a day after the event, this message appeared on Craigslist's Close Encounters in New York:
"This was on Friday at the Met. I remember you from the elevator when we were going from the 1st floor to the 2nd floor. You were the guy wearing the red sweater... I held the door open for you and you smiled at me. I saw you again in the Cubism section. I was standing in front of The Actor painting by Picasso. You were looking at Matisse's View of Collioure and the Sea. You were standing there for a while, sketching in a brown notebook. I was about to approach you, but froze up and ended up tripping and falling into the painting leaving a small tear.
I think you left before the security got there.
If you read about this in the news the next day, I'm the girl from the elevator."
"It was a distractingly terrible sweater."
It's not clear whether the ad is real or not, but it certainly rings of sincerity ... and desperation. We can only hope that the art destroyer did finally hook up with that cubism-loving red sweater. Surely Picasso would have wanted a multimillion dollar disaster to at least culminate in a little sex.
Siobhan blogs at her blog and tweets at her Twitter @SiobhanPMcKeown.
For more ridiculous destruction, check out 7 Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World and The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots.
And stop by LinkSTORM to discover what happens when Brockway was left alone with the Mona Lisa.
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