The Case of the Escaped Spirit

Artworks are damaged in ways you would never imagine—careless movers, overenthusiastic cleaning persons, neurotic pets. And then there was the broken Joseph Cornell box.

Conte Moore, managing director at Marsh, the New York–based insurance broker, recalls a strange damage claim involving a large painting that was owned by a major bank. The work was restored to fix mysterious dents that had appeared on its surface, but they reappeared after the work was reinstalled. A surveillance camera later showed a cleaning woman accidentally ramming the handle of a carpet sweeper into the canvas. “It looked like the painting was poked with a pool cue,” Moore says.

Fine-art insurers say that most damage to art occurs during transport. But art is also damaged in other, more unusual ways—by destructive pets, careless storage, and improper cleaning methods.

The arrival of an artwork at its new location can be hazardous. Harold Smith, who has worked as an art adjuster for over 60 years and consults at Cunningham Lindsey International, an insurance claims adjuster, recalls the case of an employee at a SoHo gallery who enthusiastically opened a package that contained a drawing. In his excitement, he tore up the drawing along with its wrapping. “He felt embarrassed about it,” Smith says.

Similarly, Gayle Skluzacek, president of Abigail Hartmann Associates, a fine-and-decorative-art appraisal firm in New York, remembers a Nam June Paik television set that was wrapped by Christo and unwrapped by one of the major auction houses.

Others in the field report that auction houses and galleries frequently throw out artworks: they forget that the work is still in its packaging or neglect to check boxes thoroughly before discarding them. “A crate comes in, and some paintings look like they’re part of the crate,” says Moore. “Seven paintings come out of the box, and three more go into the garbage.”

The danger isn’t over when the art emerges from its package. Skluzacek remembers the damage to a valuable canvas caused by a King Charles spaniel. “The dog attacked a 19th-century British landscape painting that had a hunting scene with a rabbit in it,” says Skluzacek, who was asked to appraise the damage. “The dog ate the rabbit,” she explains. One of heiress Doris Duke’s dogs walked through a painting, according to Charles von Nostitz, a New York restorer, but it wasn’t clear what the dog was after.

Cats can be destructive, too. Dorit Straus, vice president and worldwide fine-art manager at Chubb, received a claim for a large Abstract Expressionist painting that had been damaged when a cat urinated on it while spinning in the air in an epileptic fit. Von Nostitz once worked on a Roberto Matta painting worth several hundred thousand dollars that had been knocked into a lamp and torn to pieces by a cat. “This was one of the cats in the Friskies commercials,” von Nostitz adds, in recognition of the temperamental nature of celebrities.

Smaller animals, such as mice, pose a threat. When paintings are stored in attics or basements, the mice can nibble the glue from the back of the canvas, and insect droppings can corrode the surface. “I worked on a huge picture in Florida that had over 10,000 specks from fly droppings,” von Nostitz says.

Much smaller organisms than flies are equally dangerous. Von Nostitz recalls a couple who lived in Europe and kept an apartment on Park Avenue that they rarely visited. At some point during a six-month absence, their sprinkler system went off. When von Nostitz surveyed the damage, he saw mold spores everywhere—on the walls, the furniture, and the artworks. The paintings were unrecognizable; he couldn’t tell if they were still lifes or dog portraits. “It looked like someone took a can of green spray paint and sprayed it all over the apartment,” he recalls.

Danger also lurks in the basement. At least once a year, art appraiser Elin Lake Ewald, of New York’s O’Toole-Ewald Art Associates, is summoned to appraise artworks damaged in a flooded cellar.

“I ask, ‘Why wasn’t the art upstairs?’ And the answer is ‘These are too precious,’” she says. “The basement,” she adds, “is about the worst possible place to keep anything valuable.”

Overzealous cleaning workers are notorious for using heavy-duty chemicals to clean—and destroy—artworks. “Cleaning people are rough,” says Catherine Torsney, a fine-art specialist at New York insurance broker DeWitt Stern Group. Straus has seen many claims resulting from damage by Windex, especially when it has been used to clean a sculpture. “It corrodes the patina,” she says.

That’s what happened to a pair of beautifully patinated 14th-century Japanese brass candlesticks, Ewald recalls. A new cleaning woman decided to show her employers how thorough she was and scrubbed the candlesticks, reducing their value from $10,000 to $200. Ewald was also called in to assess the damage to a Frank Stella mural caused by a maintenance worker, who used a mop and cleaning fluid on it.

Vacuum cleaners are cited by experts as another major culprit. Skluzacek was once asked to appraise the damage to three paintings by the 19th-century American artist George Catlin. “The cleaning woman kept whacking into them with a vacuum cleaner,” she explains. Fortunately, all three works could be repaired.

Sometimes the owners themselves are to blame for the damage. A restorer reports that the white shirts in a 17th-century Dutch painting had yellowed, so the owners used Comet cleanser to try to lighten them.

Some claims simply defy categorization. Torsney insured an American antiques dealer who sent several artworks to a colleague in France. One day the dealer called her to tell her that “a band of gypsies” had hijacked his colleague and stolen the artworks. Torsney had to pay the claim. “What actually happened to the pieces, we don’t know to this day,” she says.

Special problems can arise with conceptual artworks. Ewald remembers the story of an artist who collected soil from prisoner-of-war camps around the world and stored the bags of dirt in a warehouse. When the warehouse staff decided to tidy up, they threw out the dirt. “The whole piece was destroyed,” Ewald says. “The artist insisted it had to be that specific dirt.”

In another case, an artist used dollar bills to perform transactions at a variety of shops, diners, and department stores. The bills were put on display in a gallery, where a visitor pocketed one of them. According to the gallery, the piece no longer existed. In both these cases, the claims were paid.

Some dealers and collectors, says Ewald, believe that Joseph Cornell boxes contain spirits. So when a Cornell box fell off a table and broke open, its owners asserted that the piece had been destroyed, even though the only component that broke was an easily replaceable drinking glass. “They insisted that the spirit had escaped the box,” Ewald says, and that therefore the piece was a total loss. The insurers paid.

Then there was a large, rough stone that Joseph Beuys wrote on with chalk. While in transit, the already-cracked stone suffered a new crack. According to the art dealer, the piece had lost half its value. Ewald says she got out every book and article by Beuys about his work and found quotes in which he said that his art was about process and disintegration. “So what happened to it during its lifetime was part of the piece,” she explains. “Therefore, it had essentially lost none of its value. The dealer didn’t argue, because Beuys was speaking from beyond the grave, so to speak.”

Experts can also harm artworks. Straus recalls a painting that was damaged in transit when it slipped from the hands of its movers onto a marble-topped commode. The commode broke and the painting was ripped. “The moral of the story is, move other valuable objects away when you’re moving art,”
; she says.

Steve Pincus, a senior vice president at Marsh, recalls a rare panel painting that needed to be cleaned, photographed, and used in a documentary about its creator. When the expert art movers carried it out of the owner’s house, a strong wind cracked the wood panel in half. The movers delivered the work to the restorer for cleaning without mentioning the crack, but the condition report that traveled with the painting didn’t mention that it was in two pieces. “That allowed him to pinpoint when the damage had occurred,” Pincus says, adding that the condition of an artwork should always be thoroughly documented before the piece is moved.

In another case, an art handler was stealing the works his boss was paying him to move, says Elizabeth Feeley, a fine-art specialist at PLI Brokerage, a national firm. The handler’s excuse: “He thought they were being thrown away as garbage,” she says. Moore recalls an antique mirror that art movers attached to the side of their truck with bolts so it wouldn’t break, devaluing it by $75,000.

Experts sometimes provide bad advice. Skluzacek was once contacted about a heavily lacquered Sigmar Polke painting. Its surface had been nicked when a cleaning woman banged into it. “An adjuster told the owner to put nail polish on it,” Skluzacek says. “Luckily, she didn’t do it.”

Art insurers strongly recommend that art purchased abroad should not be carried onto an airplane; it should be sent by a qualified art shipper. That’s because there are many claims of damage caused by customs officials, who are paid to catch smugglers, not to preserve the world’s cultural heritage. In one incident, Torsney recalls, a customs inspector shredded a rare jeweled book with a box cutter. Von Nostitz reports a similar episode, in which an inspector used a box cutter to slice through a valuable painting from Mexico. “He wanted to cut open the wrapping, and he cut right through it,” he says.

And what about artists? They can cause problems by signing works on the back, especially with magic marker. “It bleeds through to the front,” says von Nostitz. “The painting has to be retouched. It’s fairly common.” Even a painted signature on the back can distort the image on the front, he adds.

The art itself can also be dangerous. A mixed-media work by Robert Longo with a metal sculpture as its central panel dragged down a painting by Julian Schnabel when it fell off a wall, according to Ewald. “They were embraced in war on the floor until they were found,” she says. The Schnabel painting survived, but the Longo was destroyed.

In the end, no matter how unusual the circumstances of an artwork’s damage or loss—from cats, dogs, mice, cleaning people, artists, or floods—someone has to pay. As people in the art-insurance industry like to say, according to Moore, there’s no stupidity exclusion in the insurance contract.

Michelle Falkenstein is a freelance writer in New York.

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