The Biggest Art Fails of All Time

Banksy Girl With Balloon Banksy’s Girl with Balloon, 2004, original mural on Waterloo Bridge in South Bank, London. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of us may recall that historic day in 2018 when famed British graffiti artist Banksy’s work, “Girl with Balloon,” sold for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction. It then completely shredded itself to pieces while auction goers watched in shock. 

However, this stunt was seen as equally unsurprising to some, who knew Banksy to be famous for satire and for making bold political statements through his art. That act of destruction “turned the auction itself into a work of art,” according to The Verge

Inspired by this sudden act of (or art of) destruction, we’ll explore similar situations where artworks were, purposefully or accidentally, destroyed. Whether done by the artist, stolen by thieves, or accidentally ruined in art restorations, in war, or in transit, these are some of the biggest ‘art fails’ of all time.

The Art of Destruction

“For me, an image is the sum of its destructions.” – Pablo Picasso, 1954

Some artists, like Picasso and Banksy, find that the act of destroying their own works is indeed a work of art in itself. But artists’ or onlookers’ complete destruction of art may have various motives, according to Dario Gamboni’s book, The Destruction of Art and Vandalism since the French Revolution

These may include political, feminist, theological, aesthetic, or pathological motives, but art destruction is “not devoid of meaning.”

Artists Who Destroyed Their Own Works

Beyond Banksy, below are just a few of the artists who truly believed it to be important to destroy their own work, perhaps to make way for new genres or styles, or to continue the cycle of creation and destruction.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon tore through 100 of his canvases before his death in 1992. He used his art to release his intense emotions, and this cycle of creation and destruction was, he believed, important to his entire “torturous, creative process.” 

The way he violently applied paint to his canvases, and the way he violently destroyed them, was his way of portraying “the violence of reality itself.” He also was known to destroy works he was simply not happy with. Below, Figure in a Landscape, c. 1945, was one famous work that survived Bacon’s attempts at destruction. 

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Francis Bacon, Figure in a Landscape, 1945 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe was another artist who destroyed some of her works before her death, mainly because she didn’t like them. One of the works she attempted to purge (and even noted in a personal notebook as ‘destroyed’), was the watercolor Red and Green II, 1916 (shown below). However, she failed at this art fail, as the painting emerged again in 2015 at a Christie’s sale

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red and Green II, 1916, watercolor, $75,000 via Christie’s, New York, NY (November 19, 2015)

John Baldessari

John Baldessari, called the ‘godfather of conceptual art,’ passed away at 88 years old in January of 2020. He was known for experimenting with all types of art media, from video art to emojis. In his earlier years, however, Baldessari destroyed his entire body of work. In 1970, he took all of the works he created between 1953-1966 to a crematorium. He kept the ashes on an urn on his shelf and engraved the birth and death dates of each work on a plaque. 

Calling it his “Cremation Project,” Baldessari was commenting on the cyclical, recyclable process of creating art. As a way of starting over with a ‘blank canvas,’ so to speak, Baldessari started fresh the following year with a work titled, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art

Works destroyed by viewers

Sometimes, artworks get destroyed or vandalized by their spectators. One of the reasons for this, as noted by Gamboni, is to breathe new life and meaning into the piece – to bring it into modern times.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, was infamously vandalized by art dealer and curator Tony Shafrazi in 1974. Shafrazi spray-painted “Kill Lies All” across the work. 

Why did he do it? Shafrazi later explained in an interview, “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.” 

Picasso Guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937, Oil on canvas (via Wikimedia Commons)

Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV

In 1982, a German student “felt so threatened” by Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV, 1966-7, that he punched it, kicked it, and spat on it. The student felt that the artist would have approved of this act, stating, “I feel that now, for the first time, the picture is really complete, because of what I have done.” 

Sabotage is perhaps at “the very peak of Modernism” – radical, avante-garde art is tied to transgression, according to Gamboni. And while not necessarily justifying them, he suggests that these acts of destruction may, to some, seem necessary to move us forward.

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Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV, 1966-7, Barnett Newman (via Wikimedia Commons)

Art Restorations Gone Wrong

In continuing our examination of ‘art fails,’ we’re looking beyond acts of destruction and onto mistakes — incidents where human error led to unfortunate ruin. Here are just a few famous botched art restorations to know. 

Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez

One of the most famous cases of botched art restorations comes from Cecilia Jimenez, an 80-year-old who volunteered to “attempt” to restore a mural at a local cathedral in Spain in 2012. While the restoration was a failure, in a sense it was a great success, because the cathedral became known worldwide, with tourist activity raising thousands for charity. And Cecilia? She became known as “the new Goya.”


Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescoes

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The Jesse spandrel, frescoes of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, before and after restoration (via Wikimedia Commons)

Another renowned art failure followed the attempted restoration of the Jesse spandrel, frescoes that are part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece. Called a “travesty” by critics, the eyes of this female figure are now missing. 

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci 

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The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1519, oil on wood. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This Leonardo da Vinci work was restored under the supervision of the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, as well as the former director of paintings at the Louvre, both of whom resigned after this major art fail. 

The restoration, according to a 2011 article in Le Journal des arts, posed more danger to the painting than expected. The painting came out much lighter, now dominated by vibrant colors as though the scene happened in the bright of day. This was believed to be contrary to the vision da Vinci had for this piece, though some experts have also come out in support of the restoration.

Other Fatal Accidents

Other accidents, in addition to botched restorations, have led to the complete destruction of famed artworks. Whether art is destroyed in transit or in wartime, these are just a few that were lost along the way. 

Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware 

Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1850, depicts George Washington bravely crossing the icy Delaware River during the Battle of Trenton. One version of this painting currently hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leutze’s original painting, the first of three versions, did not even survive a year. First, it was partially destroyed in an 1850 fire in the artist’s studio, but it was later restored in 1863. However, nearly a century later in 1942, an Allied airstrike on Bremen officially destroyed the work.

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Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers

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The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet, 1849, oil on canvas. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers of 1849 is a Realist portrait of two workers breaking stones at a roadside camp. This piece, along with 90 other works were acquired by German businessman Max Heinrich Eduard, who kept them in his collection in Dresden. But this piece, too, became a victim of World War II attacks. In 1945, British and American forces firebombed Dresden, and The Stone Breakers were subsequently destroyed.

Lucian Freud’s Untitled Oil Painting

In 2000, a small still life created by Lucian Freud in the 1960s arrived at Sotheby’s London. At the time, collectors were eager to buy works by the artist, with two recent works of his having recently sold for record prices. However, in another big art fail, this work never made it to the auction block. Its crate was accidentally placed with others that were meant to be thrown away, and it was put into a crushing machine. 

Pablo Picasso’s Le Peintre

Pablo Picasso’s Le Peintre of 1963 was one of six works portraying a bearded artist-figure, and it was once valued at $1.5 million. That is, before it was completely destroyed in a plane crash in 1998. In September of that year, a Swissair plane traveling from New York to Geneva crashed into the Atlantic Ocean due to an electrical fire. In addition to the 229 passengers lost in this tragic accident, 110 pounds of cash and gold, 4 pounds of diamonds, 14 pounds of watches and jewelry, and Picasso’s Le Peintre were also lost.


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