From Canova to Beccafumi: ten works destroyed or damaged at exhibitions

A quick and sad review of ten striking cases of works destroyed or damaged during exhibitions and displays, from 1981 to the present.

The destruction of Antonio Canova’s plaster cast of TheKilling of Priam, which was shattered in early August during preparations for the staging of the Canova exhibition scheduled in Assisi from Aug. 10 to Jan. 31,1 continues to spark controversy about the appropriateness of certain exhibitions, which would seem to be organized only for commercial and not cultural purposes (exemplary in this regard are the battles of Tomaso Montanari) and about the safety of works of art. Canova’s plaster cast, however, is not the only work destroyed or damaged during an exhibition. In this article we wanted to list, in chronological order, the ten most egregious cases in recent years of works that have been damaged or irretrievably lost (such as theKilling of Priam, which was declared "artistically irretrievable"2): a sad overview useful, however, to bring everyone up to speed on the problems of an exhibition and the many stresses to which works are subjected during transfers, and to make it clear that an exhibition is never an easy operation. Let us remember this every time we visit an exhibition!

1. French artist of the 14th century, St. Bernard
Art historian Roger Marijnissen reports in one of his articles on the case of this 14th-century French sculpture from Val-Dieu Abbey, which was seriously and severely damaged in 1981 during the mounting of the exhibition Benedictus Pater Europae: The work, made of wood, fell during the preparations resulting in the irrecoverable loss of half of the saint’s head.3

2. Henri Matisse, La danse
In 1993, Henri Matisse’s painting La danse suffered irreparable damage during a move: the work was in fact part of a world “tour” of works by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, United States. The work suffered a conspicuous detachment of its surface4.

3. Antonio Canova, The Three Graces.
Again the ill-fated Antonio Canova is the protagonist of an episode involving a version of his Three Graces made for Woburn Abbey, an ancient abbey that later became the residence of the Duke of Bedford. In 1994, the work was purchased together by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, with the result that the work, in addition to being taken away from the place for which it was conceived (sparking controversy for this), was forced to travel back and forth from one museum to another. This wandering of it would have subjected the work to stress that may have been responsible for a crack that formed on its surface 5.

4. 9th-century Irish miniature painting, Book of Kells.
The Book of Kells, an invaluable 9th-century A.D. Irish illuminated manuscript, among the greatest works of art of its time and among the most important works of Irish art, was damaged in 2000 while being transported to Canberra, Australia for an exhibition. In fact, the stresses sustained during the very long plane transfer allegedly resulted in the alteration of some of the manuscript’s pigmentation. Fortunately, from the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, the place where the book was stored, it was learned that the damage was minor 6.

5. William Turner, The Slave Ship
The English Romantic painter’s painting, The Slave Ship (known in English as Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying Typhoon coming on), sustained damage in 2003 on its return journey from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to the Tate Gallery, London, after the end of an exhibition 7.

6. Caravaggio, Madonna of the Pilgrims
Caravaggio’s masterpiece, which is still preserved in its original location (the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome, in 2006 left for Milan where it was displayed at an exhibition entitled Caravaggio and Europe: on its return it was noticed that the work during the exhibition had suffered a small amount of damage consisting of the lifting of about a square centimeter of the paint surface 8.

7. Domenico Beccafumi, Marzia
In 2008 a Marzia by Domenico Beccafumi, owned by the National Gallery in London, was seriously damaged during the dismantling operations of the exhibition Renaissance Siena: art for a city held at the National Gallery itself. The work, a panel painting, broke in two parts, roughly in half. Fortunately, the painting could be restored in a short time9.

8. Martin Kippenberger, When it starts dripping from the ceiling.
The strangest and, if you will, also “funny” incident happened to the work of contemporary artist Martin Kippenberger in 2011: the installation, on loan to the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund, Germany, for an exhibition, was ruined by an overzealous cleaner who thought the work was dirty because of a layer of paint used by the artist to simulate rainwater, which was mistakenly removed10.

9. Joan Miró, Pintura sobre fondo blanco para la celda de un solitario.
Also in 2011, the Spanish artist’s work, loaned to the Tate Gallery in London by the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona for an exhibition, sustained major damage: a man, falling on the painting while leaning on it with both hands, caused damage estimated at £203,000 to the painting11.

10. Luciano Fabro, Imprint
The last damage in chronological order, and one of the most serious, is that suffered by Luciano Fabro’s glass sculpture Impronta. During an exhibition in Lugano on September 8, 2013, a Swiss radio journalist unintentionally bumped into the Italian artist’s work, causing it to fall and thus resulting in its destruction. The work, made between 1962 and 1964, is unrecoverable12.


1. Accident during packing operations, shattered plaster by Canova , from Giornale dell’Umbria, August 2, 2013.

2. Canova’s plaster cast that fell to the ground “is artistically unrecoverable,” from Giornale dell’Umbria, August 5, 2013.

3. See Roger Marijnissen, Laissez-nous le Bruegel!, Museum International (Edition Française) 04/2009; 38(4):249 - 252.

4. See Leonard W. Boasberg, Matisse In Barnes Tour Is Damaged, Court Told An Expert Testifying For Opponents Of The Tour Couldn’t Say When Harm Occurred, from The Inquirer, December 30, 1993.

5. Cf. Crack found in famed "Three Graces," from Associated Press, March 6, 1998.

6. Cf. Book of Kells is damaged, from The Guardian, April 15, 2000.

7. Cf. Dalya Alberge and Jack Malvern, Masterpiece by Turner damaged on loan to Tate, from The Times, October 28, 2003.

8. Cf. Renata Mambelli, Caravaggio returns scarred from Milan, from Repubblica, February 20, 2006.

9. Cf. Martin Bailey, National Gallery drops Renaissance painting, splitting it in two, from The Art Newspaper, June 1, 2008.

10. Cf. Helen Pidd, Overzealous cleaner ruins £690,000 artwork that she thought was dirty, from The Guardian, November 3, 2011.

11. Cf. Martin Bailey, Miró on loan damaged at Tate Modern, from The Art Newspaper, January 8, 2013.

12. Crash. And Luciano Fabro’s “Footprint” shatters. Crash at the opening of Meno Uno in Lugano. The culprit? A careless journalist, from Exibart, September 8, 2013.

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