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 carrying it into his house, I misjudged a doorway, accidentally bumped a corner, tried to back up, caught it on the door corner, and put about a 2-inch tear into the canvas. 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 sure I can repair the painting so perfectly no one will ever be able to tell the difference? I think the buyer is totally overreacting. What do you think?

A: If I was the buyer and had just bought that painting, I would have done the exact same thing he 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 interaction even came up. You could have offered to repair it too, and then let the collector decide.

To begin with, you say you can repair the painting "so perfectly no one will be able to tell the difference," but that's not the least bit true. No matter how well you repair the tear, the art will no longer be what he originally paid for-- a brand new work of art in perfect original condition. That's the key issue here. Even if you completely flawlessly brilliantly repair the damage, the fact is that you now have a damaged painting with a repair, not a perfect painting in pristine original untouched brand new condition.

That's not the only flaw in your argument. You say no one will be able to tell the painting was ever damaged but in truth, 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 see the repaired tear when they turn the painting around and look at it from the back. Even if you back the torn canvas with a perfect new canvas to hide the tear, the backing will be visible. I can assure you that experienced collectors carefully inspect every aspect of every single artwork they buy before buying it-- 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 completely disappear.

The worst thing an artist can do in the event of damaging an art piece is not to tell the buyer, repair the problem, and hope they don't notice. At least you didn't do that. If a buyer discovers a repair that wasn't disclosed at the time of purchase, asks about it, and finds out the hard way what happened, that will pretty much assure the end of any relationship with whoever sold them the art. And now for some facts about why condition is so important and how damage or repairs can impact a work of art's its value...

Condition is a major consideration in any decision about whether or not to buy-- both from gallery and collector perspectives. If you're a buyer or collector, always ask about condition. No matter how perfect a work of art looks on the surface, ask whether it has ever been damaged or repaired, or has had any other issues that might affect how it will hold up over time. And get those answers in writing. Do this no matter how old or new the art might be. Even brand new art can have repairs.

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 other than original. This is especially true with newly produced contemporary art. Mint, gorgeous, fresh-from-the-studio perfection is required. But wait; there's more. Approximately 100% of galleries 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? According to the news, he had to take it off the market immediately for starters. Next, he had to hire a fine art conservator to repair the damage, which he did for a reported $90,000. According to available information, the value of the painting fully restored was subsequently revised downward to $85 million-- an astounding loss of $54 million for a thumb poke. The reduction in value is simply how the art business works, regardless of whether or not the repair was not even visible from the front. In addition to the physical issues, negative histories or publicity almost always devalue art as well. No art owners want to think negative thoughts every time they look at their art.

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 flooding. His reaction? Pretty much the same as your client's-- even though much of the art looked more or less the same, he regarded the collection as pretty much ruined. The experience was so traumatic that his enjoyment of the art had been forever compromised. Even assuming that 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 on the surface, but the less appealing someone finds a work of art-- for whatever reason-- the less money they're willing to paying for it, assuming they stay interested at all. The fact is most people are less inclined to buy art that's been damaged at some point than they are in buying art in perfect original condition. It's that simple and no more complicated.

And then there's the matter of disclosure. Look at any major work of art up for sale at any major auction house. Comprehensive condition statements or reports including histories of any repairs, damage or related incidents are almost always on file and available for any bidder to see before they bid. Established galleries are the same way. If someone asks about condition or repair history of a work of art, galleries are obliged to tell them. And the same holds true for artists. You never want to misrepresent or mislead about whatever it is that you're selling. If it has repaired damage, be up front about it. It might cost you a bit in the short term, but your integrity will ultimately benefit.

While we're on the subject of artists, you really want to think twice about putting any damaged-and-repaired art up for sale under any circumstances. Don't deliberately try to hide incidents of damage from potential buyers either even if they've been repaired. Leaving yourself open to questions from potential buyers who might notice some kind of problem or irregularity with a particular work of art is never good for business. Having to explain or defend less-than-perfect art has zero upside. If damage is substantial, sometimes simply destroying the work and starting over is best. Or if the damage is relatively minor, maybe repairing and selling it at substantial discounts is possible, but even then, you have to decide whether you want inferior work like that out in the marketplace at all.

Getting back to your collector, if he 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 rattling around somewhere in his head. 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 buys another painting, it may still remind him of the one he lost. You might think this whole kerfuffle is wacky, but people don't necessarily act rationally around art.

Having said all this, you may still be able to resolve the problem and work something out. Perhaps he'll have second thoughts even though he was upset initially; not everyone responds to incidents like this in the exact same way. Try offering some sort of compromise just to see whether he's open to it. 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 that. In the end, if he insists on a total refund, let him have it. You really have no other choice if you want to maintain your reputation. Take back the painting, repair it and put it back on the market FOR LESS if you want, and fully disclose the repair. Sad to say, but accidents do happen.

artist art

(art by Mario Martinez aka Mars-1).

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