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The afterlife of broken art

The afterlife of broken art

After insurers write off a damaged work of art, the Salvage Art Institute picks up the pieces

After insurers write off a damaged work of art, the Salvage Art Institute picks up the pieces

Josie Thaddeus-Johns | January 8th 2018

A wayward child, a mistimed elbow, or an unnoticed water leak: there are many ways that a piece of art can be ruined. It’s a thought that strikes morbid fear into art collectors, a priceless painting being ripped, or a painstakingly handcrafted sculpture smashed into a thousand pieces. But what happens next?

Often, damaged works of art end up in the vaults of insurance companies. Once the owner submits a claim on the damaged piece, a team of experts, appraisers, conservators and adjusters offer specialist advice on the artwork’s condition and devaluation. The economics of selling and repairing the work are weighed up, and generally, if the cost of restoring a work is far beyond what it is worth, the work will be claimed as “total loss”. The insurance company will pay out on the policy and, in exchange, retain the broken piece. The “total loss” artwork is effectively declared worthless, unsalvageable by both insurer and owner. From then on it belongs to the insurance company as salvage.

Some of these pieces, though, end up being exhibited by the Salvage Art Institute (SAI), which calls itself a “haven” for written-off works. Conceived by Elka Krajewska, an artist in New York, in 2009 during a chance meeting with a representative of AXA Art Insurance, it took her until 2012 to jump through enough legal hoops to persuade the insurer to donate some of their total-loss works to the SAI. A selection of these works is now on show in “No Longer Art”, a show at BNKR Space, a gallery in Munich.

The pieces in the exhibition include a smashed Jeff Koons balloon dog (main image) and two parts of a triptych by Helmut Dorner, a German painter (the other having gone missing in transit). They are mounted on pull-out trolleys and, unlike in a traditional exhibition, visitors are encouraged to pick them up and examine them closely. One of the pleasures of the show is physical: there’s a certain frisson in touching the metallic shards of the balloon dog, a large version of which once sold for over $58m. Handling pieces this way, rather than as sanctified objects on a pedestal, makes us wonder: what was it that made them so untouchable in the first place? That leads to another, more philosophical question: how and why does art become valuable?

Art-broken A torn 19th-century landcape (right) is one of the artworks on display

It is posed most forcefully not by pieces which are smashed or slashed, but by more subtle scars. The damage that brought these works here is not always obvious. While a 19th-century French landscape has a huge rip in the canvas (above), a brightly coloured lithograph by Robert Rauschenberg has a barely perceptible scratch. As for a series of photographs by Anne Morgenstern, showing young Palestinian teens, to the untrained eye they look like new. “The decision to declare something a total loss is not always evident,” says Mark Wasiuta, who co-curated the SAI’s first exhibition in 2012.

To illustrate his point, he pulls out a trolley bearing a white canvas with dark paint curving across the top, by Wilhelm Sasnal. This no-longer-artwork had mould damage that is invisible to the naked eye but had such an effect on the painting’s value that AXA had paid out in full. “Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s microscopic,” Wasiuta says.

The narrowness of the distinction between art and no-longer-art means that insurance companies can wind up with objects that people would still pay good money for. Insurers are under no obligation to disclose when an artwork has been designated as a total loss, and there is no available database of such designations. That leaves room for them to “revive” a work, either after a restoration or simply by reselling it as is, perhaps when there is a change in the market conditions, for example. Among the works that AXA Art originally loaned to Krajewska was a print by Henri Cartier-Bresson with visible marks from retouching in one corner. AXA Art recalled it in 2013, perhaps because of the discovery of a letter from Cartier-Bresson, in which he revealed he’d left the mark there on purpose. The “fault” in the work was, in fact, an integral part of it. The print went on sale at auction later that year with an estimated sale price of around $8,000. After all, while an insurance adjuster’s signature can reduce an object’s value to zero, it’s the artist whose vision the collector is paying for.

No Longer Art: Salvage Art Institute BNKR Space in Munich until 25th February