Art restoration is an art form in and of itself that can either make or break the longevity and aesthetic value of an artwork. The delicate and tedious task of art restoration is normally left in the capable hands of professionals who specialize in meticulous methods and technological approaches required to complete restoration projects. Sometimes, restoration projects do not always achieve the desired end goal and can sometimes end up botching the original artwork. In this article, we will journey through some of the most awful art restoration projects in art history that will have you wishing the original artworks were left alone.
- 1 Botched! The Biggest Art Restoration Fails of All Time
- 2 The Art of Restoration
- 3 Top 10 Art Restoration Fails
- 3.1 Buddhist Frescoes (c. 907 – 1125 BCE) in Chaoyang, China
- 3.2 The Anyue Buddha (c. 1000 BCE) in Anyue, China
- 3.3 The Mask of Tutankhamun (c. 1323 BCE) in Cairo, Egypt
- 3.4 Ancient Mosaics (c. 2nd – 6th Centuries) at the Hatay Museum
- 3.5 Orpheus Being Attacked by the Furies (c. 13th – 14th Centuries) by Leonardo da Vinci
- 3.6 Saint George (16th Century) at the Church of San Miguel de Estella
- 3.7 Saint Anthony of Padua (17th Century) in Soledad, Columbia
- 3.8 Santa Barbara Statue (c. 19th Century) at Santa Cruz da Barra Chapel
- 3.9 Ecce Homo (1930) by Elías García Martínez
- 3.10 Botched Baby Jesus (Mid-20th Century) at Sainte-Anne-des-Pins Catholic Church
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
Botched! The Biggest Art Restoration Fails of All Time
When major institutions announce that their precious artworks and archaeological objects are about to undergo major restorations, most of us tend to get excited. What we do not realize is that human error, restoration techniques, and the fragility or condition of artwork all play a role in determining whether or not a restoration attempt will be successful or not.
It is especially tricky when the artwork in question is hundreds of years old and appears so fragile that many are too scared to even imagine what the outcome of restoration would look like.
While most expensive art restoration projects are successful in restoring the original aesthetic quality of the artwork, some art restorations are not so lucky and often end up botched due to mismanagement, a lack of financial resources, and a lack of access to art restoration professionals.
The Art of Restoration
The process behind art restoration is methodical and calculated, and is usually planned out according to the artwork in question and its medium. Art restoration and conservation are aimed at the preservation of cultural property and include artworks, buildings, and objects housed in museums or that are classified as national historical landmarks.
The purpose of art restoration in the art sphere focuses on the repair of artwork that has suffered damage, injury, or have been subject to botched restorations from the past, as we will discuss below.
An art restorer’s function is to implement the necessary repairs to the artwork such that it resembles the original style and appearance as closely as possible. Art conservators fall in a similar genre under the restoration process and include professionals who are responsible for making sure that the artwork is stable and implementing additions or elements necessary to ensure any further degradation occurs.
The Importance of Art Restoration
Art restoration efforts are important to ensure the preservation of important cultural artworks and properties that contribute to cultural and artistic heritage. Art restoration ensures that artworks uphold their integrity and maintain their value. The condition of an artwork influences its value and this is one of the primary reasons why art restoration projects usually come with heavy price tags since it is also tied to ensuring the artwork’s value.
Art restoration is, therefore, an investment in art and reflects an institution or government’s interest in the importance of artistic and cultural heritage.
The Process of Art Restoration
Trained art restorers, conservators, and chemists go through unique processes for each artwork that involves a careful analysis of the artwork in question and its damage. Art restoration aims to arrive at a solution that is the least invasive to the artwork and which will repair and ensure the longevity of the artwork.
Upon an initial evaluation of the artwork, the specialists would already have an idea of the period or style of artwork that they are working with and would leverage this knowledge when making the first evaluation. The professionals will then map out the necessary techniques, pigments, and materials that the original artist used to create the painting.
In most cases, an X-ray of an artwork such as a painting would be done to understand the composition of the artwork and unpack its layering so that the conservator has an understanding of the framework of the artwork based on the artwork’s absorption of the pigment.
The next stage in the process of art restoration involves the use of infrared imaging to reveal the underlying images or loss of paint in an artwork. Thanks to the many advancements in technology, the art restoration process is also a lot easier despite the heavy costs. Specialized cameras with fixed wavelengths help restorers distinguish the different pigments since each pigment or material reflects and absorbs wavelengths differently. Wavelengths of around 1,700 nanometers help specialists locate carbon-based drawings.
A restorer patiently filling the gaps of the much-damaged frescos in the crypt of the Sant’Eustorgio church in Milan, Italy; G.dallorto, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons
Once the specialists have formed an accurate image of the original artwork, they then proceed with identifying the correct solvent mixture to remove any discoloration on the varnish layers. A technique called spectroscopy is used to view vibrational rotation and low-frequency modes in a system, which enables specialists to pinpoint the correct composition of varnish. Any outer layers to the identified varnish are removed and then the real repair work ensues.
One method that a repair process can approach an artwork such as a painting involves the application of varnish over the original work to separate the old paint from the new paint.
This layer of varnish serves as an intermediary coat and ensures that future restoration attempts can be executed without impacting the original paint layers. This is also one way in which you can identify stylistic fluctuations. A conservator would then meticulously paint in any damaged areas with a mixture of dry pigment and synthetic non-yellowing solvents, thus ensuring that the newly restored work would rarely require further conservation since it was done professionally.
Top 10 Art Restoration Fails
No one can remake an artwork better than the artist and this has proven true in the case of these major restoration fails. Below, we will get straight into the most astounding art restoration fails in art history that will have you shaking your head in dismay.
Buddhist Frescoes (c. 907 – 1125 BCE) in Chaoyang, China
|Date||c. 907 – 1125 BCE|
|Where It Is Housed||Yunjie Temple, Chaoyang, China|
“This is a crime. I am heartbroken.” These were the words of a disturbed visitor after viewing the botched restoration of the Buddhist frescoes at Yunjie Temple in Chaoyang, China. The restoration of these Qing Dynasty frescoes in China could not be further from the original artist’s handiwork.
This major art restoration fail was flagged after a happy visitor returned to Yunjie Temple to show his friends the incredible historical frescoes, which originally displayed the characteristic style and color palette of the time and could clearly not be replicated after this failure of a restoration project.
The Buddhist frescoes were transformed from delicately-rendered brushwork and carefully placed vivid colors to a circus display that animated the figures in the painting rather than restoring their original appearance. According to reports on how this tragedy occurred, sources claimed that it was an unauthorized project, similar to the attempted restoration of the 1930 Ecce Homo painting in Spain.
Due to the understandable outrage, two government officials were fired from their positions, and one officer was issued a warning.
The Anyue Buddha (c. 1000 BCE) in Anyue, China
|Date||c. 1000 BCE (Song Dynasty)|
|Where It Is Housed||Anyue, China|
The unfortunate restoration attempt on a 1,000-year-old Song Dynasty Buddha in Anyue county resulted in a technicolor tragedy. The horrific restoration attempt of the stone statue was executed by local villagers who meant well for the statue but ended up botching the historical artwork. Although the botched restoration took place in 1995, it was only in 2018 that it received global attention.
Following the technicolor paint job, the government tightened its laws on art restoration and management of relics.
The Mask of Tutankhamun (c. 1323 BCE) in Cairo, Egypt
|Date||c. 1323 BCE|
|Medium||Gold, obsidian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, and glass paste|
|Dimensions (cm)||54 x 39.3 x 49|
|Where It Is Housed||Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt|
This treasured archaeological artifact was the victim of one of the worst art restoration attempts in history, considering the magnitude of the discovery. The mask of Tutankhamun is one of the most prized finds in history, which, in 2014, was subject to damage after the beard section snapped off by accident.
One might assume that the restoration attempt for such a highly-regarded object would be carefully considered and executed but sadly, the restoration of the beard was a haphazard process.
The panic-stricken employees who mistakenly broke off the beard attempted to glue the broken portion back on using epoxy but in the process, they caused further damage to the surface after they scraped away at the excess traces of epoxy. A proper restoration attempt was made the following year, which required the specialists to remove the work of the employees and refinish the surface.
This botched restoration was a close call!
Ancient Mosaics (c. 2nd – 6th Centuries) at the Hatay Museum
|Date||c. 2nd – 6th centuries|
|Where It Is Housed||Hatay Archaeology Museum, Antakya, Turkey|
This botched art restoration project by the Hatay Museum in Turkey is one restoration that will have you wishing that they left the original artwork alone. The startling difference and botched restoration were noticed by a local craftsman named Mehmet Daşkapan who pointed out the shocking difference between the original mosaic and the restored version of the mosaic, which appeared to have drastically altered the original artwork.
The restorer behind the project was Celal Küçük, who alongside the Culture and Tourism Ministry, defended the restoration efforts and claimed that Daşkapan only saw the initial stages of restoration.
However, the photos indicated that the initial restoration was unlikely to achieve the same detail as that of the original. Daşkapan pointed out at least 10 mosaics that seemed botched by the restoration project with other critics speculating that Daşkapan may have doctored the images using Photoshop. What do you think?
Orpheus Being Attacked by the Furies (c. 13th – 14th Centuries) by Leonardo da Vinci
|Artist Name||Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)|
|Date||c. 13th – 14th centuries|
|Medium||Pen and ink on paper|
|Where It Is Housed||Private collection|
This is perhaps the worst art restoration fail in art history, credited for its extreme damage and complete destruction of the sketch by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci. The sketch in question, Orpheus Being Attacked by the Furies, was destroyed in 2001 after it underwent restoration.
The artwork itself was completely destroyed after the parties involved submerged the drawing in water and alcohol without testing the ink solubility of the drawing first.
This caused the drawing to sadly disappear and what remains of the drawing is said to be non-existent. The drawing was part of the many drawings compiled from Da Vinci’s notebooks, known as the Codex Atlanticus, which was created by Pompeo Leoni. The damage of this botched restoration project is irreversible and one can only stand in shock at the lack of proper handling and attention given to such a delicate and important work.
Saint George (16th Century) at the Church of San Miguel de Estella
|Date||c. 16th century|
|Where It Is Housed||Church of San Miguel de Estella, Navarre, Spain|
This shocking failed art restoration project gone wrong will have you kicking, screaming, crying…and throwing up. The Saint George statue at the church of San Miguel de Estella in Spain had undergone a restoration “project”, which did not receive proper authorization. The 500-year-old sculpture of Saint George on a horse was “restored” by a local art teacher who added his own take on Saint George and turned him into a comical spectacle resembling the cartoon character Tintin.
The sculpture’s restoration did not go unnoticed and made news headlines internationally.
The “restored” statue of Saint George on horseback at the Church of San Miguel, Estella, Navarre; Zarateman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
In 2019, the statue was placed under a re-restoration project and the sculpture was successfully restored to the correct color and facial features found in traces of the original. The project costs amounted to $34,000 and were thankfully executed by restoration professionals who stripped the sculpture down to its original state and restarted the correct restoration process from scratch.
The cost of implementing the re-restoration project was not only expensive but it also paid the price in terms of losing some of the sculpture’s original paint, thus, a significant part of the statue’s “historical footprint” was lost.
Saint Anthony of Padua (17th Century) in Soledad, Columbia
|Medium||Polychrome wood sculpture|
|Where It Is Housed||Soledad, Columbia|
This failed art restoration project cost approximately $328 and shows! A couple of hundred dollars was the price of a full-glam makeover of a wooden polychrome sculpture of Saint Anthony of Padua at a Columbian church in Soledad. The restoration attempt seemed cheap and so was the result. The final product of the restoration left the Saint, and baby Jesus, with a full-glam makeup look, complete with red lipstick, blush, and eyeshadow.
The random restorer did not understand the assignment and instead of a restoration, the sculpture got a beauty makeover.
Visitors of the church were left horrified and dismayed at the statue, which appeared to completely change the original personalities of the figures. The addition of makeup on these figures could be considered a statement toward the church after it received comments stating that the statue was “effeminate”.
Nevertheless, the statue’s poor restoration attempt had completely undone the work of the original artist and replaced it with mannequin-like figures.
Santa Barbara Statue (c. 19th Century) at Santa Cruz da Barra Chapel
|Date||c. 19th century|
|Where It Is Housed||Santa Cruz da Barra Chapel, Fortaleza de Santa Cruz, Brazil|
This failed art restoration on the Santa Barbara statue at the Santa Cruz da Barra chapel in Brazil is one of the worst painting restorations fails of the 21st century. The statue had undergone an ambitious makeover, which left it looking like a barbie doll.
Her skin was repainted to appear in a ghostly unflattering porcelain color, which was far from the original style used by the original artist.
The restoration was executed by specialists from the Museu Histórico do Exército who removed around four layers of paint. Nevertheless, the restoration project caused outrage, leaving the statue looking more like a toy figurine than a polychrome wooden statue.
Ecce Homo (1930) by Elías García Martínez
|Artist Name||Elías García Martínez (1858 – 1934)|
|Dimensions (cm)||50 x 40|
|Where It Is Housed||Sanctuary of Mercy Church, Borja, Zaragoza, Spain|
Almost too shocking to be true, this art restoration was not much of a planned project and was only actioned after an elderly woman decided to restore the artwork with the permission of a clergyman. Ecce Homo was originally painted in 1930 by Spanish artist Elías García Martínez, who painted a traditional Catholic image of Christ with a thorny crown. On the other hand, the modern restoration of the painting resulted in a horrendous distorted image of Christ, which appears less complete than the original ever was.
After the botched attempt, the Sanctuary of Mercy Church saw a spike in visitor numbers who lined up to see the worst art restoration project of all time.
Botched Baby Jesus (Mid-20th Century) at Sainte-Anne-des-Pins Catholic Church
|Where It Is Housed||Sainte-Anne-des-Pins Catholic Church, Ontario, Canada|
In 2016, this sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus made headlines across the internet for its haphazard restoration attempt by local artist Heather Wise. Wise even received death threats from local Christians who were horrified by her attempt at restoration and overlooked her kind-hearted aim for restoring a statue that often faced vandalism.
According to Wise, she could not find the correct color of clay to restore the sculpture in a budget-friendly way so she purchased an orange terracotta clay, which she used to model the head of baby Jesus.
Due to unforeseen weather, the rain damaged the air-drying clay and the statue gained significant attention for its terrifying disfigured face the very next day. Although the sculpture was not a historical artifact or artwork, it was still a cherished religious statue that should have been given more thought and planning for restoration. Restoration projects executed professionally do cost quite a bit but usually, one can trust that the job would be done correctly and avoid controversy.
These shocking art restoration failures can only leave one questioning the importance and security placed on important historical artworks and pieces of heritage that go neglected and underprioritized. Art restoration is incredibly vital to the preservation and conservation of artwork to ensure that future generations can appreciate and view art just as much as we are able to access art today. This also sparks questions that all artists should pay attention to when it comes to the protection given to art and the potential of your own art possibly falling victim to neglect and carelessness in the future. As much as art production, access, and the humanities are important to society, art restoration, preservation, and ensuring access are just as important.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Art Restoration?
Art restoration refers to a process of evaluation and repair executed on an artwork when it is damaged due to time, environmental conditions, or general wear and tear. Art restoration activities are conducted by trained professionals referred to as restorers and conservators to restore the visual appearance and composition of an artwork to its original state and ensure its longevity.
Does Restoration on Artwork Affect Its Value?
Restorations performed on artwork affect its value since its renewed condition would increase the price and face value of an artwork. Artworks rely on condition as one of many factors affecting their cash value.
What Is the Most Famous Botched Art Restoration in the World?
The most famous botched art restoration in the world is considered to be the Ecce Homo painting by Elías García Martínez. This painting restoration fail was executed by an elderly woman at the Sanctuary of Mercy of Borja church in Spain. The original painting was created by Martínez in 1930 and following the botched restoration, the painting was determined irreparable.
Jordan Anthony is a Cape Town-based film photographer, curator, and arts writer. She holds a Bachelor of Art in Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where she explored themes like healing, identity, dreams, and intuitive creation in her Contemporary art practice. Jordan has collaborated with various local art institutions, including the KZNSA Gallery in Durban, the Turbine Art Fair, and the Wits Art Museum. Her photography focuses on abstract color manipulations, portraiture, candid shots, and urban landscapes. She’s intrigued by philosophy, memory, and esotericism, drawing inspiration from Surrealism, Fluxus, and ancient civilizations, as well as childhood influences and found objects. Jordan is working for artfilemagazine since 2022 and writes blog posts about art history and photography.
Cite this Article
Jordan, Anthony, “Art Restoration Fails – Discover the Worst Art Restorations Ever.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. January 17, 2023. URL: https://artfilemagazine.com/art-restoration-fails/
Anthony, J. (2023, 17 January). Art Restoration Fails – Discover the Worst Art Restorations Ever. artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. https://artfilemagazine.com/art-restoration-fails/