How to Deal With Damaging Your Own Art
Options for Artists and Collectors
Q: I recently sold a large painting to a local collector. While delivering and carrying it into his house, I misjudged a doorway, accidentally bumped a corner of the painting, tried to back up, caught it on a hook, and ended up putting a small tear into the into the canvas, about two inches long. To me, this was no big deal; I told him I would repair the damage and make the painting just like new, but he said he no longer wanted it. Then he told me he wanted his money back-- all of it-- and that maybe he would buy another painting at a later date. I was shocked. Why should I give the money back when I'm positive I can repair the painting so perfectly that no one will ever be able to tell the difference? I think the buyer's totally overreacting. What do you think?
A: If the painting had been mine, I would have done the exact same thing this collector did. He has a complete right to return the painting and be given a full refund. Take it back if he insists, no questions asked. In fact, you should have offered to take it back immediately after the damage happened, before this situation even came up. That would have been the best thing to do.
To begin with, no matter how well you repair the tear, what he'll end up with will no longer be what he originally paid for. That's the key point. Even if you completely flawlessly brilliantly repair the damage, the fact is that you still have a damaged painting with a repair, not a perfect painting in pristine original condition.
Plus your argument is flawed. You say no one will be able to tell the painting was ever damaged, but the truth is that anyone who knows what they're looking at will be able to spot the repair instantly. Maybe they won't be able to see it from the front, but they will when they turn the painting around and look at it from the back. I can assure you that experienced collectors carefully inspect every aspect of every artwork they buy before buying them-- top, bottom, front, back, sides-- everything. No matter how good you are at repairs, there's no way you or anyone else can make a tear in a canvas disappear.
The worst possible course of action in the event of damaging an art piece is for the artist not to tell the buyer, repair the problem, and hope the buyer doesn't notice. If the the buyer does happen to discover the repair at some point down the road, ask about it, and find out the hard way what happened, that will pretty much assure the end of any relationship between the two of them. And now for some facts about how the condition of a work of art impacts its value...
Condition is a paramount consideration in any decision about whether or not to buy-- both from the dealer's and collector's perspectives. Original untouched condition is best by far. In fact, unless a work of art is excessively rare or important in some way, many experienced dealers and collectors won't even consider adding it to their collections or inventories if condition is anything less than perfect. But wait; there's more. Approximately 100% of dealers and collectors will tell you that a work of art with repaired damage is worth less than a comparable work of art in perfect original untouched condition. Here's a real life example for you...
Remember when casino mogul Steve Wynn accidentally poked a hole the diameter of his thumb in a Picasso painting he was planning on selling for $139 million? For starters, he had to take it off the market immediately. Next, he had to hire a fine art conservator to repair the damage, which he did for a reported $90000. The value of the painting fully restored was subsequently revised downward to $85 million-- an astounding loss of $54 million for a thumb poke, and this despite the fact that the repair was not even visible when looking at the painting from the front (unless you knew exactly where to look and what to look for).
Not to belabor the point, but in a similar instance, I recently heard about a collector who went on vacation and came home to discover that his multi-million dollar collection had been water damaged due to a flood in his house. His reaction? Pretty much the same as your client's-- he never wanted to see any of it again and will be putting it up for sale in its entirety. The experience was so traumatic that his enjoyment of the art had been forever compromised. Even though every last piece can and will be fully restored, the memory of the incident can never be erased.
Considering intangibles like this may sound ridiculous when it comes to dollar values and the way art looks, no matter what the condition history, but the less someone wants to own a work of art-- for whatever reason-- the less they're interested in paying for it. And people are less interested in owning art that has been damaged at some point in its existence than they are in owning art that's in perfect original condition. It's precisely that simple and no more complicated.
If your collector decides to keep the art, not only will he have to reckon with a decrease in value, but the memory and image of that tear on his previously perfect painting will always be somewhere rattling around in his mind. And that's likely why he wants the refund-- to forget the whole thing ever happened. This may even affect his relationship with you to the point where he'll never buy another painting. Why? Because even if he buy's another painting, it may still remind him of the one he lost. You might think that's wacky, but people don't necessarily act rationally around art.
Don't totally give up on this, though; maybe you can work something out. He might have overreacted without thinking things through; not everyone responds to incidents like this in the exact same way. Try offering some sort of compromise just to see whether the he's open to other options. For instance, offer to repair the painting and refund a percentage of the purchase price-- like maybe 30-50%. Or offer to repair the painting and give him another smaller (but still significant) painting at no charge. Maybe he'll go for it. But if he wants his money, let him have it. If he insists, you really have no other option. Take back the painting, repair it and put it back on the market if you want (including full disclosure on the repair)-- FOR LESS. Sad to say, accidents do happen.
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