Here’s What Happens If You Accidentally Destroy A Priceless Work Of Art In A Museum

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Things break, even at museums. You never want to be “that guy”—the one who robs the world of an irreplaceable piece of its cultural heritage; just the thought of it is enough to make you cringe.

But what actually happens when you spit-take cola onto the Mona Lisa? How do the authorities respond when you trip into a Ming vase? The short answer is…nothing much. Here are a few real-life cases that might make you feel better if you’re a chronically clumsy art-lover.

18th-Century Delft Pottery vs. Kindergartner

In 2015, a family visited the Christchurch Mansion, a sumptuous Tudor home that now houses a branch of the Ipswich Museum, about 60 miles north of London. Among them was a young boy who was just 5 years old, according to later reports. Wandering through the exhibitions, the boy did what kids that age do: He bumped into something.

Ipswich Star

A 221-year-old Delft puzzle jug crashed to the ground and broke into 65 pieces. The boy was “devastated,” according to multiple accounts of the event. The family eventually retreated from the museum, mortified by the accident.

Here’s what did not happen: The Art Police did not descend on the museum and tear the boy from his mother’s arms. The institution’s founder did not rise from the grave and haunt the quaking child to madness. The UK government did not get involved.

Claude Lorraine Richard Wilson Nursey, “Interior of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Seat of C.W. Fonnereau Esq.”

Instead, the staff at the Christchurch Mansion repaired the jug, then they went on a quest to find the boy who had broken it. They wanted to invite him back to the museum to see that the restored piece of pottery. They were, it seems, concerned about the child.

“The young lad was very upset by what happened and they all thought he had destroyed the historic jug,” a spokesperson for the Museum told the Ipswich Star. “We would like to be able to show him and his family that it has all been put back together again and that it is back on show.”

Ipswich Star 

The event and the Museum’s response got lots of media attention from all over the world. This helped them find the boy and his family. Well, actually, it was the other way around.

“We have received a call from the boy’s mother who told us the little lad and his family were delighted that the puzzle jug had been repaired, but that they wished to remain anonymous,” the spokesperson said.

Paolo Porpora’s “Flowers” vs. 12-Year-Old Tourist

The “2015 Face of Leonardo: Images of a Genius” exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan, included a gorgeous 350-year-old oil painting by the late-Baroque painter Paolo Porpora. The still life is called “Flowers” (artists could be quite literal in the late Baroque era).

Anyway, the painting met its match in a 12-year-old Taiwanese boy with a drink in his hand. Security footage shows the boy wandering by, treacherously close to the painting, when he suddenly stumbles. He stretches out his arm to arrest his fall—and punches a hole right through the 17th-century canvas. In the footage, everyone in the room freezes for one excruciating moment as the boy looks around in terror. Yep, everyone saw, kid. There’s no getting out of this one.

TST Art of Discovery Co

Except, there was. The exhibition’s organizers didn’t ask the family to pay any restoration costs. Mistakes happen, they figured. Besides, the painting was insured out the wazoo. The poor adolescent and his family walked away scot-free.

Of course, things are a little different when adults do the damage.

Three 17th-Century Vases vs. 42-Year-Old Englishman

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, once exhibited a trio of 17th-century Qing-dynasty vases, fine examples of Chinese ceramics at the time of Emperor Kangxi’s rule. Then, in 2006, along came Nick Flynn.

Steve Baxter/The Telegraph

Flynn, a 42-year-old man from nearby Fowlmere, later said that his shoelaces were untied. The vases, meanwhile, were standing on a low windowsill at the foot of a staircase. Flynn stepped on a shoelace at the top of the flight, tumbled down the stairs, and smashed right into a vase, which knocked over the next vase, which brought down the third. It was like the most expensive set of dominoes ever.

When the dust settled, Flynn sat on the floor in a pile of shards. The vases, which were valued at more than $600,000, were in pieces.

Alamy Stock

Not much else happened that day. Flynn stood up, dusted himself off, and marched right out of the museum.

Months later, the police arrested Flynn on a charge of criminal damage. He spent a night in jail before museum officials decided not to press charges. They did mention that Flynn should probably not visit the museum for a while, although they didn’t issue an official ban.

Andrew Dunn/Wikipedia

So why did Flynn get arrested while the other two art-breakers we’ve discussed were absolved instantly? The obvious conclusion is that Flynn is an adult; it’s easier to forgive children for breaking things.

There’s another detail that might be pertinent, though. The Qing vases were not insured, you see. We first told you that “nothing much” happens when you accidentally destroy museum pieces. Maybe we should amend that to say that nothing much happens when you destroy insured works of art.

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