Swept away: the art and artefacts destroyed by the world’s greatest museums

Anyone who has ever been told off by a snippy museum guard for getting too close to an artwork may be interested to learn that galleries and their staff are not always the unassailable guardians of culture they appear to be. It has emerged that V&A staff dropped the precious sitar that George Harrison played on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and broke it in two. “It hit the ground and the gourd bounced away,” revealed a whistleblower. The museum was forced to make an “awkward telephone call” to Harrison’s widow, Olivia, to explain. Naturally, museums don’t boast about the accidents, losses and mistakes for which they are responsible, but enough incidences have come to light to give a tragicomic picture of behind the scenes chaos. Here are just some of them …

The British Museum’s lost ring

The Cartier that went missing from the British Museum.

The Cartier that went missing from the British Museum. Photograph: British Museum

In 2017, the British Museum admitted to having lost a £750,000 Cartier diamond ring six years earlier. It was off-view in the museum’s study collection when it disappeared in 2011. Police have dropped the inquiry and the ring’s whereabouts remain a mystery.

Martin Creed’s burst ball

A freedom of information request in 2008 revealed a catalogue of breakages by staff at the Scottish National Museum of Modern Art. One employee damaged a Martin Creed installation called Balls by stepping on it at the press view. Installers accidentally punched holes in a Tracey Emin work while hanging it, and the frame of a Magritte painting was damaged with sticky tape.

Modern art is rubbish

Contemporary installations are so frequently swept away by cleaners that it has become an urban legend. Did Tracey Emin’s My Bed really get tidied by Tate cleaners in 1999? A Tate Britain worker certainly did remove part of a piece by the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger in 2004: then again it was a bag of rubbish. An installation representing the aftermath of a party was thoroughly removed from Bolzano’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Italy in 2015 by cleaners who mistook it for the aftermath of an actual party. When the same thing happened to a Damien Hirst array of filled ashtrays and other mementi mori at London’s Eyestorm gallery he called it “fantastic. Very funny.”

The Prado’s vanishing collection

Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.

Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy

In 2014, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that Madrid’s Prado museum had lost 850 works and no one has any idea what happened to them. A spokeperson for the museum sounded relaxed about the enigma, perhaps because with all its masterpieces by Goya, Titian and Velázquez this collection still has plenty to show. The losses over its 200-year existence are probably the result of Spain’s turbulent modern history, including the 1936-39 civil war

Giving away the Warhols

In 2015 the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia lent two of its large collection of Warhols to an “art education” company. It didn’t give them back. The company turned out to be involved in disreputable dealings and police said the Warhol works might be hostages. Some museums get robbed. This one gave its art away.


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