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Million Dollar Artwork Damaged by Overzealous Cleaning Lady

Andrew Pourciaux
Photo by Mirko Tobias Schäfer CC BY 2.0
Photo by Mirko Tobias Schäfer CC BY 2.0

Modern art often gets a reputation for being strange, obtuse and somewhat pretentious. Of course, this reputation isn’t entirely unearned.

There have been plenty of strange and overblown pieces of art, sometimes selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, all while looking relatively thrown together or mundane.

Some might look at these sales and see it as injustice, others might see ingenuity. Still, the fact remains, modern art does sell, and sometimes it sells really well.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

All art is subjective, as they say, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The traditional styles of art such as paintings are easily identified as artistic in nature.

A viewer at a gallery who sees a painting in a frame might not like the painting, but would be quick to agree that the painting itself it art.

“Art – the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” (Oxford English dictionary). Is this museum display a work of art?

“Art – the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” (Oxford English dictionary). Is this museum display a work of art?

With modern art, things can be a little more difficult to discern. Sometimes a modified urinal or stains on a wall can be part of an exhibit.

Take for instance the work of art known as When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling. This sculpture had been carefully crafted by Martin Kippenberger, a German artist known for his varied and interesting styles. This work, composed of a wooden tower, had a black rubber trough underneath it.

Martin Kippenberger Exhibit at MOMA 2009. Photo by Carl Mikoy CC By 2.0

Martin Kippenberger Exhibit at MOMA 2009. Photo by Carl Mikoy CC By 2.0

This trough had a thin layer of paint spread inside it, in order to represent the dripping stains from rainwater. It looked stained, but this was the intention of the artist.

Yet, the stain was convincing enough to fool a cleaner who had been working in the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund, Germany, where the sculpture was residing.

This woman had been busy cleaning the entire building overnight, only to come across the clearly stained trough. Without realizing that it was part of the actual art piece itself, she knelt down, got her scrubbing tools out and went to work.

Museum Ostwall, Dortmund, Germany.

Museum Ostwall, Dortmund, Germany.

Within a short time she had scrubbed it completely clean, destroying the integrity of the piece and wiping out all traces of the paint.

Without realizing what she was doing, she had severely damaged the work of art.

While the sculpture was still intact, the main purpose of the trough was now violated and could not be restored, especially since creator was long dead.

Unfortunately, the problem stemmed from the fact that the cleaning team wasn’t in-house, but rather was an outsourced company.

Another sculpture by Martin Kippenberger. Photo by Kamahele CC BY-SA 3.0

Another sculpture by Martin Kippenberger. Photo by Kamahele CC BY-SA 3.0

While memos had been issued to the crew telling them that they needed to keep a safe distance away from all of the exhibits, it is difficult to know if she had received that information.

The sculpture’s overall value was £690,000, which is no small amount. To make matters worse, When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling didn’t even belong to the museum — it had been loaned by a private collector.

Modern art Installation by Robert Filliou entitled La Joconde est dans les escaliers. Photo by Fred Romero CC By 2.0

Modern art Installation by Robert Filliou entitled La Joconde est dans les escaliers. Photo by Fred Romero CC By 2.0

Fortunately the sculpture was insured, but it would never be restored to its rightful state again.

Mishaps like this aren’t frequent, but they can happen, especially when the art is difficult to accurately identify as an artwork.

In one instance, a cleaner thought that a pile of empty beer bottles, ashtrays and newspapers was trash that needed to be removed, not realizing that it was actually part of a display by Damien Hirst, another contemporary artist.

While these cleaners certainly learned an intense lesson about the dangers of cleaning modern art, there is a bigger lesson to be learned here.

Read another story from us: $47 Million worth of artifacts recovered in raids across Europe

Art is subjective, and one man’s trash can certainly be another man’s art installation.


Andrew Pourciaux is a novelist hailing from sunny Sarasota, Florida, where he spends the majority of his time writing and podcasting.