As artworks age they can deteriorate. That’s when the services of conservators are called upon. But the results of repair work are not always an unmitigated success. In fact, sometimes conservation is downright disastrous. Read on for 20 examples of times when art restoration ended in calamity.
20. Kardashian lookalike?
Termites perpetrated the first crime against the 19th-century statue of St. Anthony of Padua. The greedy little blighters feasted on the wooden statue, which sits in the main church of Soledad in Colombia. But the second miscreant was the conservator who restored the effigy.
The “expert” decided that what St. Anthony needed was a garish paint job. But just how bad was this 2018 makeover? So awful that the Daily Mail newspaper claimed the refurbished artwork was a dead ringer for Kim Kardashian. On the bright side, at least the bill for the work only came to a reported $328.
19. St. George undone
A local art teacher, mercifully unnamed in reports, was responsible for this restoration travesty in 2018. A 16th-century statue of St. George, of dragon-slaying fame, was showing its age. The ecclesiastical authorities at the Church of San Miguel de Estella in Spain decided it was time to renovate the crumbling work.
The results of the restoration were very far from pleasing. In fact, the church in Navarre was so unhappy with the work that it employed a second set of conservators to undo it. They labored for about 1,000 painstaking hours to return St. George to his original state.
18. Clay head of Jesus
Vandals attacked this mid-20th century statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, cruelly decapitating the Messiah in 2016. The good folk of Sainte-Anne-des-Pins Catholic Church in Sudbury, Ontario decided that the missing head had to be replaced.
Canadian artist Heather Wise stepped forward to perform the task. Her intentions were no doubt of the best, but her artwork was not. Her clay representation of baby Jesus’ facial features resulted in mockery and disbelief in equal measure. But the happy ending was that the viral response to Wise’s handiwork prompted an anonymous return of the original head.
17. Monkey Christ
Time will tell if this restoration disaster turns out to be the worst of the 21st century, but it’s undoubtedly a strong contender. Artist Elías García Martinez created this painting, Ecce Homo in the 1930s for the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja. In 2012 one of the Spanish church’s congregation, Cecilia Giménez, decided the work needed a reviving touch-up.
The results quickly turned into a global sensation with her work dubbed “Monkey Christ.” However, an unrepentant Giménez has pointed out that she had single-handedly put her previously obscure town firmly on the map. And curious tourists reportedly flocked to the town.
16. From Santa Bárbara to Barbie
This 19th-century statue’s home is a chapel in the Brazilian fortress of Fortaleza de Santa Cruz. The pre-restoration photos of Santa Bárbara’s statue show that it did need some TLC. But there was nothing tender in the gaudy splashes of paint that the conservators chose to daub onto the effigy.
The guilty parties were the restoration team from Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Histórico do Exército. One commentator, historian Milton Teixeira, told local news site Veja, “They turned Santa Barbara into Barbie!” Few would argue with his verdict.
15. Brightest Buddha
In 1995 locals decided that a 1,000-year-old statue of Buddha needed freshening up. The artwork is located near Dunhuang in China’s Gansu Province, one of the Song dynasty marvels of the grottoes of Mogao. The site is recognized as housing some of the world’s finest Buddhist art.
Years after the locals executed the gruesome paint-job a tourist guide put an image of the results on social media in 2018. It quickly went viral, and not in a good way. Newspaper China Daily reported that officials were quick to insist that, “No similar repair work was carried out again in recent years.” That’s a relief.
14. SpongeBob SquarePants castle
The Ocakli Ada Castle in Sile, Turkey has stood for nearly 2,000 years. But what you see today is nothing like the edifice’s former splendor. In fact, if you owned the castle, you’d likely be calling your lawyer once you’d seen the builder’s handiwork.
The new exterior of the structure, finished in 2010, stands out like a sore thumb. It’s fair to say that any sense of history that this ancient monument previously had has been irretrievably obliterated. British tabloid newspaper the Daily Mirror pointed out that the building bore more than a passing resemblance to SpongeBob SquarePants.
13. Technicolor fresco
An exquisite Buddhist wall painting from the Qing dynasty was undeniably showing its age. Indeed, the fresco was in danger of flaking away altogether. So the conservators were called in to the Yunjie Te Temple in China; they set to work in 2013.
But the results of the restoration were startling to say the least and generated outrage. The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported one enraged social media user as saying, “The renovation beggars belief. What the hell were the people from the cultural relics bureau thinking?” The ensuing brouhaha saw two officials losing their jobs.
12. Mosaics murdered
A collection of Roman mosaics from the 2nd to the 6th century A.D. came under the hand of restorers in 2015. The mosaics are held by the Hatay Archaeological Museum in the Turkish city of Antakya. A local artisan, Mehmet Daskapa, visited the museum after the completion of the conservation project.
What Daskapa saw appalled him and he went public. He told local paper Antakya Gazetesi, “Valuable pieces from the Roman period have been ruined. They have become caricatures of their former selves.” Judging by the pictures, he wasn’t wrong.
11. “Laugh or cry?”
Looking at the “before” image of this botched restoration you’d have to ask, “Why?” Surely to most eyes the natural wood of the 15th-century statue absolutely does not cry out for a thickly applied coat of gaudy paint. But one keen artist thought otherwise.
In 2018 María Menéndez, a shopkeeper in the Spanish village of Rañadorio, decided to get out her brushes and brighten up this representation of the Virgin Mary with Saint Anne and the infant Jesus. She also painted two other statues. Luis Saro, an earlier restorer who’d left the statues in plain wood told The Guardian newspaper, “The result is just staggering. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
10. Mystery of the missing male members
The Tree of Fertility is an extraordinarily exuberant – and bawdy – fresco from the 13th century. It portrays a generous collection of male appendages hanging from a tree in the manner of fruit. The fresco is painted on La Fonte dell’Abbondanza in Italy’s Tuscany region. Restorers worked on it in 2011 and then faced a serious charge.
Critics accused the conservators of removing as many as 25 of the drooping organs from the branches of the tree. The restorers rejected the charge. And if they did remove some of the male members, judging by recent photos, they certainly didn’t snip out all of them.
9. The (not so) Great Wall of China
Built in the 14th century, the Great Wall of China is one edifice that genuinely merits the adjective iconic. But some builders showed little respect for the ancient border wall when they came to restore it in 2016. Perhaps no one had mentioned to them that the wall was some seven centuries old.
What the builders did, as photographs clearly show, was to simply slap a flat layer of concrete along the top of the structure. This completely obscured all of the ancient detail. Speaking to the The New York Times newspaper park warden Liu Fusheng said, “Even the little kids here know that this repair of the Great Wall was botched.”
8. Overcleaning a Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci painted one of his masterpieces, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne some 500 years ago. But it was in 2011 that the painting was plunged into a conservation controversy. Curators at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France where the painting is held had decided that it was time to clean the work.
Some conservators, including two closely associated with the Louvre, expressed deep concern at the chemicals and methods used to accomplish the restoration. Indeed the two experts resigned from the committee which was set up specifically to guide the da Vinci restoration. They felt the priceless work was being overcleaned, a view shared by others.
7. What did the Virgin Mary do to deserve this?
In June 2020 a Spanish restorer agreed to work on a copy of a gorgeous painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables. The original canvas, painted circa 1660, is held by the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In particular the conservator, apparently an amateur, tried to re-do the face of the Virgin Mary in the copy.
The results of the attempted restoration can only be described as ludicrous. The amateur conservator, actually a furniture restorer, made two preposterous efforts to re-paint the Virgin’s originally radiant face. Judging which of the two efforts is the worst is no easy task. And the unfortunate owner paid $1,350 for the work.
6. Scandal at the Sistine Chapel
The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel contains some of Michelangelo’s best work. He painted magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the chapel between 1508 and 1512. In later years, along with other artists, he worked on different parts of the small chamber, which is just over 130 feet long and slightly more than 40 feet wide.
Cleaning the inevitable contamination that adheres to the work is a never-ending task. But restoration work in the 20th century resulted in some collateral damage. In some cases, a figure’s eyes were lost altogether. There were art experts who were less than impressed, strongly opposing the conservation methods.
5. The magnetic penis
It was in 2010 that former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi had a marble Roman statue from roughly 175 A.D. placed in front of the prime-ministerial residence. The statues, of Mars and Venus, had been discovered minus their hands. In the case of Mars, his male member was also missing.
Berlusconi had the hands added, and most controversially had a penis carved for Mars which was affixed with a magnet. The two statues were reportedly returned to their original state later. What became of the prosthetic male organ is unknown.
4. Fraught façade
The desire to preserve buildings from previous eras is strong in many countries, including the U.K. But the results of this impulse are not always entirely pleasing. In fact, the desire to conserve can sometimes result in what can only be called an eyesore.
One prime example sits in the Welsh capital, Cardiff. The ornate façade of the 19th-century Cardiff Gas Light and Coke Company’s headquarters was undoubtedly worth preserving. But the Altolusso tower, an enormous pile of concrete directly behind it, is a complete horror in the eyes of many.
3. Ruined or improved?
Controversy erupted in Portugal in 2014 when 19th-century sculptures at the Shrine of Our Lady of Prayer were repaired and repainted. Speaking to the Portuguese Resident website, André Remígio said, “This case is very serious. The most basic rules of restoration have been broken.”
Remígio also claimed that history had been “deleted.” It’s easy to see that the statues have been given a makeover that some might describe as lurid. However, the work has its defenders. A custodian of the shrine, Brasilia Martins, expressed his satisfaction with the conservation project. Which just goes to show that one man’s ruined artwork is another’s improved one.
2. A vulgar nose job
Veronese, an important Renaissance master, painted his Supper at Emmaus in the 1550s and today it sits in the Louvre gallery in Paris. In 2010 the museum authorities decided to restore the painting but the results infuriated some. They concentrated their discontent on a woman portrayed in the right of the picture.
The Guardian reported that an initial restoration resulted in what critics had described as “a mutilated nose tip that hovers disconnectedly over an anatomical void.” And detractors also claimed that further work had only made things worse. One commentator characterized the project as an act of “vulgar cosmetic surgery.”
1. Careful with that mask!
Perhaps the best-known of the many objects discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs is Tutankhamun’s death mask. Any conservator worth their salt would give an arm and a leg to work with this splendid artifact. But you’d expect them to be very, very careful.
But in 2014 one or more of the restorers at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum was clumsy. Somehow, Tutankhamun’s beard broke off. Worse, conservators tried to glue it back on in a ham-fisted effort to cover their tracks. An attempt to remedy this repair reportedly caused still more damage to the 3,300-year-old mask. Thankfully, German expert Christian Eckman managed to make good the damage.