Imagine it: You visit your favorite museum to admire centuries’ worth of paintings and sculpture. But then a stray elbow bumps a pedestal, or maybe you stumble, or perhaps your child gets a little too eager. And time slows to a crawl as that priceless vase tumbles to shatter on the floor or a hand tears a hole in that Picasso. It’s enough to give an art lover nightmares.
Of course, scenarios like that are all too real. Whether on purpose or by accident, plenty of people have busted, torn, stained, defaced, and otherwise destroyed plenty of art—some of which you’ll find on our in-person scavenger hunts and virtual games. Here are just 6 of our not-so-favorite times someone damaged or attacked a work of art.
One of the most famous art destructions in recent history occurred in 2012. In this little church near the little town of Borja, Spain, a well-meaning amateur artist took it upon herself to “restore” a faded fresco of Jesus Christ. She turned the thing into, well, an abomination.
This one came equipped with silver lining. The so-bad-it’s-really-bad “Monkey Jesus” restoration drew tourists from far and wide, bringing an influx of attention to this otherwise sleepy town. The botched “Ecce Homo” even has its own TripAdvisor page!
Or is it “dog-astrophe”? In February 2023, one of Jeff Koons’ famous Balloon Dog sculptures was minding its own business at a Miami art fair when a hapless visitor bumped its transparent pedestal and sent it smashing to the floor. (Early rumors that an eyewitness saw the woman purposely poke the dog to see whether it was really a balloon seem to be just that.)
But like the “Ecce Homo” incident, this one boasted a silver lining. The smashing itself became quite the event, however, and now collectors are trying to snap up shards of the shattered dog. “Everybody came to see what happened,” one art advisor told the Miami Herald. “It was like when Banksy’s artwork was shredded.” You know what they say: One art fair’s trash is another art collector’s treasure.
File this one under “attempted destruction,” because thankfully neither work is permanently damaged in this story. In 1996, Canadian art student Jubal Brown visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York…and projectile-vomited on Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red Blue and Yellow. At first the museum thought it an accident, but among other things, the vomit was blue. Turns out he had puked up a similar stunt—this time in red—a few months earlier in Toronto. In each case, the barf was a combination of colored gelatin and cake icing.
Brown had planned a third vom bomb, this time in yellow, but it seems he lost his appetite for such nonsense.
Usually when shenanigans strike at the museum, you call security. But when it’s security pulling the shenanigans? Consider the case of Aleksandr Vasiliev, a Russian museum security guard who drew eyes on a painting of three blank-faced figures in 2021. According to The Art Newspaper, Vasiliev “thought the faceless image was a ‘childrens’ drawing’ that teenagers visiting the exhibition asked him to improve upon.” A+ for customer service, F- for art preservation.
More MoMA Mayhem
In 1974, one Tony Shafrazi headed to the third floor of MoMA, readied a can of red spray paint, and vandalized Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica (seen in a reproduction above). In foot-high letters, he wrote “KILL LIES ALL,” an allusion to the phrase “All lies kill” from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Shafrazi was protesting the release on bail of a U.S. soldier implicated in a massacre in Vietnam. When MoMA security caught him, Shafrazi declared, “Call the curator. I am an artist.”
Fortunately, the heavily varnished Guernica was easily cleaned. And Shafrazi, who still runs an art gallery in New York, has been a mover and shaker in the art world for decades. Notably, he was among the first to embrace such famed graffiti artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
And of course, how could we ignore the recent spate of food-based vandalism in museums across Europe? In 2022, climate activists started a string of protests in which they glued their hands to iconic paintings’ frames. And then came two protesters in “Just Stop Oil” t-shirts, who famously doused van Gogh’s Sunflowers in tomato soup.
Similar protests have continued—for example, two activists sloshed mashed potatoes all over a Monet in Germany—but support for those acts seems even thinner than soup. Even as protestors have targeted only glass-covered paintings specifically so that they won’t damage them, the backlash has been widespread and vociferous: keep your food off the art!
Find More Fun
Explore undamaged, soup-free art on our many in-person scavenger hunts and virtual games, including the MoMA Mania Scavenger Hunt in New York City and the Around the World Scavenger Hunt: Virtual European Tour.
Image credits: Lead image by Watson Adventures; Borja church by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42955586; Mondrian in the public domain; Picasso photo by Julie Kwak on Unsplash