Stuff just happens, sometimes, even to an Andy Warhol silkscreen worth an estimated $82 million, and under constant surveillance.
According to KRON 4, a visitor to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reportedly tripped last week and bumped into “Triple Elvis” causing minor damage to the iconic work. The piece is part of the Fisher Collection, the backbone art collection of the recently reopened museum. The TV station says the painting was removed from the gallery, and taken to the museum’s conservation studio for evaluation.
The large silkscreen, in ink and silver paint on a linen canvas from 1963, shows three identical overlapping images of Elvis Presley dressed as a cowboy, his pistol out of the holster and pointing at the viewer, in a scene from Flaming Star, a Hollywood western. The work sold at a Christie's auction in 2014 for $81.9 million.
SFMOMA is keeping quiet about the incident. The museum's communications director, Jill Lynch, replied to a request for comment with this email: “We're not doing interviews on this.”
Prevention is key
But museums, including SFMOMA, work very hard to prevent accidents like this or acts of vandalism from happening.
Susan Klein, director of marketing at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says she grimaced in sympathy when she read about the incident. She says the best tools for preventing such accidents are metering tickets and other techniques that keep galleries from getting too crowded. "So that people don’t accidentally trip over things or bump into each other or the art," Klein says.
Klein also says guards should remind visitors to keep their distance from the art, and their backpacks in front or to the side of their bodies, to avoid inadvertently back into a painting or installation.
Many museums, Klein says, do bag searches, to keep potential vandals from bringing in knives or spray paint. But these aren't the only cause for concern. "You can do pretty bad vandalism with pens," Klein says.
Still, Klein says museums don’t want to put their art behind glass, which creates glare and distances the visitor from the work. So when the precautions fail, museums are ready.
How SFMOMA's Warhol might be fixed
Sy Sajid, an art restorer in San Francisco who calls his business SYSPHERE Conservation, once fixed a silkscreen on paper of Mick Jagger by Warhol for a private owner. “The restoration work would involve correcting and over-painting the damaged areas in silkscreen inks,” Sajid says of the likely process involved in restoring the damage done to "Triple Elvis." Sajid says it might also be possible to over-paint a simple scuff mark with a brush. "Or perhaps you create a silkscreen just for that area and then silkscreen it just the way it was," Sajid says.
Fine art Restoration is such an advanced field that even a tear in a linen canvas can be repaired, Sajid says, recalling an incident from 2006 when Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn punctured a Picasso he owned. Wynn was about to offload the damaged work for $139 million. But instead, he canceled the sale and a restorer fixed the painting.
Sajid says SFMOMA’s conservation and restoration department is certainly well equipped to fix “Triple Elvis.” “This is why they’re being so secretive about it," he says. "Because they’re going to take care of it and no one will know about the damage.”
Obviously the story about the damage to the Warhol has gotten out. But at least SFMOMA isn’t facing the same problem as a museum Klein brought up but wouldn't name. "Someone actually kissed a painting and left lipstick on it," Klein says about the incident. "What are you going to do about that?"