What happens when a work of art gets damaged?

Art-restoration

By Benedetta Brandi, Marketing & Communication Manager at AXA Art

What happens when a work of art gets damaged? Can it be restored to its original condition? Would that be expensive? What does the owner think? And what about the artist?

AXA has acquired more than 300 works of art that have been scratched, damaged, ruined and classified as "Totaled", by reimbursing the owner for the value and officially assuming ownership. These are works of art whose restoration would be too expensive compared to the value of the work itself, or impossible due to current levels of familiarity with certain contemporary materials or, under very special circumstances, might even be unauthorized by the artist. For example, in the case of Damien Hirst's shark, which was immersed in formaldehyde, the artist agreed to having the decaying shark replaced with a new one which would safeguard the value and the concept of the work. However, a conciliatory solution cannot always be found, and an artist may decide to disavow their work and remove their signature. So, what to do?

We can start from the assumption that the work of art has other, parallel, lives. First, there is the identity it has at the moment of creation and at which the artist "delivers the article and the concept" to the world. Second, there is the "market" identity in which the work of art actively enters into the environment of buying and selling and into the appetite of collectors. Finally, it has a "material" life, which makes it objectively susceptible to the physical degradation of the material of which it is composed. Damage, when it occurs, can inevitably affect these three “aspects", sometimes all three, and sometimes not. At this point, the expertise of an insurance company specializing in fine art can play a fundamental role in shaping the future of the work by weighing the identity value of the damage, the methodology for restoration, the role of the artist and/or the reference archive and the opinion of the owner. It could be that the damaged work, while maintaining its material structure and ability to communicate the artistic message, has lost much of its originality and therefore no longer maintains its market value. When the only solution is to declare it “totaled,” the historical, documentary and cultural value of which the work is a carrier remains alive. AXA wished to become the guarantor of this aspect; the economic value of a work of art is not the only value that determines its expulsion from the world of art and extinguishes its allure. We believe in the ability of art to communicate beyond the economic sphere as well, even if it is impaired, fragile or financially worth next to nothing.
This has inspired the unique genre of a corporate collection that brings together names of important artists such as Christo, Giorgio De Chirico, Peter Lindberg, Daniel Spoerri and Helmut Newton, to name a few.

AXA stores damaged works, packed in wooden crates and protected by an alarm, in a climate-controlled warehouse in the Kalk district of Cologne, Germany. Some of the works are exhibited in the offices for the benefit of employees or displayed in the booths at some of the most prestigious art fairs in the world of which the insurance company is a partner. This is an unusual collection, but even though they are damaged, these works continue to maintain a strong cultural value, which AXA intends to safeguard.

Such is the case, for example, of the work of art by Gerhard Richter entitled, Black, Red, Gold which was commissioned by the German Federal Parliament in 1999. Recalling the tradition of the American flag by Jasper Johns, Richter created a version of the German flag made with synthetic resin-based paint under glass. During a routine inspection at the Folkswang Museum in Essen in 2017, an unusual two-cm "crack" was detected on the lower left-hand edge of the glass plate superimposed on the resin. The artist judged the damage to be so serious that it led him to invalidate the work by affixing his signature on the back. Who would feel comfortable simply disposing of this work of art? Or another example: how to deal with the almost "surreal" case of an Italian Plaza by De Chirico, whose centre was completely smashed by the ruinous blow of a demolition ball that had swung off course? And what fate lies in store for the canvas by Louis Apol – an important representative of the Hague School – who was known at the end of the nineteenth century for his poetic renderings of natural landscapes? Apol’s canvas was stolen from its owner who reported such conspicuous damages when it was found, that the restoration work required would have cost more than the value of the work itself.

In some cases, according to curator Dorothee Hamm-Neumann, the works in the collection, which includes paintings, antiques and collectibles in general, are offered for research projects, sold at charity auctions or kept in this sort of "limbo". This is because the techniques for restoration and conservation continue to advance and progress, and we can't say with any certainty that their adequate restoration won't become possible over time. In fact, it is estimated that a great many of them could be restored with satisfactory results in terms of conservation and aesthetics. Therefore, at that point, with the consent of the artist or the reference archive in the case of modern or contemporary works of art, it would be plausible to recover their exhibition value and not have to hide them away just because they are considered "disfigured art".

Moreover, if we had not been able to appreciate the value of Greek and Roman works of art simply because they were obviously damaged by time, catastrophes and history, what would have become of museums of antiquities? They would be empty. And what a pity that would be!

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