Memo to staff – art work, handle with care

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SHOWCASING complicated contemporary artworks by the likes of Tracey Emin can prove hazardous – as the National Galleries of Scotland has learned to its cost.

Three sculptures by the artist worth tens of thousands of pounds were among 14 works that suffered damage caused by staff or visitors.

Self Portrait: Bath, consisting of a tin bath, bamboo, barbed wire and neon, was part of the major Emin retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) this summer.

But a neon piece was snapped off after a woman visitor came too close, snagged her skirt on the wire and pulled away.

The catalogue of 14 incidents since 2006, including minor damage to works by Warhol and Magritte, was released under Freedom of Information laws.

Staff hotly defended their track record, insisting that all the pieces were easily repaired. But the casualties also included Balls, by the Turner Prize winner Martin Creed. The work comprises more than 800 inflatable balls of various sizes. At a press viewing, a staff member stood on one of them and crushed it.

Self Portrait: Bath was damaged during the Emin exhibition in August when "a piece of neon was broken after a piece of clothing was caught on the barbed wire", the incident log records.

A similar work by Emin sold last year for 60,000.

Patrick Elliott, a senior curator at the SNGMA, said the specialist who made Emin's neon came to Edinburgh to repair it. He has yet to bill for the work.

"We don't want any breakage, but it doesn't compromise the art work," Mr Elliott said.

"It's slightly more serious than a light bulb being broken, because it's quite difficult making neon, but he managed to repair it quite nicely.

"It's a case of whether you put rope barriers around these things. That's a work where the rope barriers would look part of the work if you put them around it."

In the past two weeks alone, the SNGMA has made about 500 changes to its displays, dismantling the Emin show and installing another by Scottish artist Charles Avery. More than 40,000 people came to see the Emin exhibition.

Another Emin piece, Feeling Pregnant III, was damaged when "a person backed into the stand and the wooden stand came adrift". The stand was reattached with larger screws.

Emin's My Uncle Colin – a tribute to a relative killed in a car accident – also suffered "minor holes created in back of object during hanging". The holes were filled in.

Last year Andy Warhol's Mark of the Beast was slightly damaged as staff screwed a mounting plate on to the back. La Representation, by the Belgian surrealist Ren Magritte, was damaged by staff putting sticky tape on its gilt frame.

"It's regrettable, but now and again it happens," said Mr Elliott. "I can't remember a single thing that's been damaged that we haven't been able to repair."

Accidents do happen - even to art

NONE of the incidents at the National Galleries of Scotland comes close to the near-disaster at the National Gallery in London, when a Renaissance painting broke in two while being moved from an exhibition.

Marcia, dating to 1519, was by the Sienese artist Domenico Beccafumi, whose works have sold for more than 1 million. Painted on three joined planks, it fell out of a temporary frame and broke along a joint. Nicholas Penny, the gallery director, has ordered a review of handling procedures.

Last year, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge put three Qing Dynasty vases back on display after a massive restoration. The 17th-century vases had stood in the museum undisturbed for 60 years until a visitor fell into them after tripping on his shoelaces.

In 1999, the casino mogul Steve Wynn was showing some guests in his office a Pablo Picasso painting he had just agreed to sell for $139 million. As he gestured to them he put his elbow through the painting, Le Rve (The Dream).