Art History Lab

Restoration Gone Wrong: Disastrous Attempts at Preserving Cultural Heritage

Art restoration is an essential part of preserving the history and cultural heritage of a country. However, sometimes, these efforts can go wrong, resulting in failed restoration attempts that may do more harm than good.

There are several reasons why art restoration fails, including extreme conditions, natural disasters, theft, mishandling, deteriorating forces, amateur interference, mismanaged citizen initiatives, and audacious creative choices. In this article, we will delve into some examples of disastrous art restoration attempts, hoping to provide a valuable lesson on the importance of exercising caution and seeking professional assistance.

Causes of Art Restoration Fails

Extreme Conditions

Extreme weather conditions can damage artwork significantly. Humidity, fluctuating temperatures, and natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and storms can destroy artwork and monuments.

Artworks exposed to harsh weather conditions can have peeling paint, fading colors, and cracks. Unfortunately, these types of damages are often irreversible, and restoration attempts may only make things worse.

Natural Disasters

The world has seen many instances of natural disasters that have caused significant damage to historical and cultural artifacts. For example, in 2014, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake hit northern California, causing substantial damage to the Napa Valley Historical Society’s Sam Kee Laundry Building.

The building, which was a historic landmark, required extensive restoration efforts that were costly and time-consuming.


Theft is another significant cause of damage to artwork. Unfortunately, in some cases, vandals or thieves are interested in specific parts of the artwork, such as the valuable gems on a statue or precious metals used to decorate a painting.

In their attempt to steal these, they may damage the artwork, rendering it irreparable.


Some artwork restoration fails can be attributed to the operator’s inadequate skills or lack of necessary expertise. In some cases, individuals and even institutions may attempt to restore artwork independently, hoping to save money or promote their restoration skills.

This can be disastrous, as the wrong type of chemicals or tools may damage the artwork.

Deteriorating Forces

Over time, some artwork may deteriorate naturally, making it necessary to undertake restoration attempts. However, some attempts may be fruitless and cause more harm than good.

For instance, exposure to light, humidity, or temperature changes can cause stains, cracks, and other forms of damage that may require more extensive or specialized restoration techniques.

Amateur Interference

Sometimes, well-intentioned people may try to restore artwork themselves, leading to disastrous results. For instance, in 2012, an elderly parishioner of the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain, attempted to restore a 19th-century painting of Jesus.

Unfortunately, the result of her restoration effort was disastrous, with the once-beautiful painting turning into a smudge of undecorated brushstrokes.

Mismanaged Citizen Initiatives

Some art restoration attempts can be attributed to community or citizen-led initiatives. Though the intentions may be good, some restoration tasks require specialized knowledge and equipment that the community may not possess.

Misjudgments in the restoration process may cause irreparable damage to valuable artwork and cultural heritage.

Audacious Creative Choices

In some instances, art restoration fails are not brought about by accidental mistakes or lack of expertise but startling creative choices. New elements may be added or replaced in the artwork, drastically changing the original characteristics.

Such changes may be offensive to some communities or may be aesthetically unsatisfactory.

Examples of Art Restoration Fails

St. Anthony of Padua Statue (17th Century)

The statue of St. Anthony of Padua, located in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia in Portugal, underwent a significant restoration job in 2018, resulting in a figure of a saint that looked like it was wearing make-up. The wooden figure had adorned the building for over three hundred years, but the restoration attempt turned it into an effeminate-looking statue that drew widespread criticism.

Wooden Religious Sculptures of Asturias, Spain (15th Century)

In 2017, a churchgoer in Spain attempted to restore a group of 15th-century wooden religious sculptures by giving them a new coat of paint with bright colors. The attempt was damaging to the original paintwork and patina, resulting in an unrecognizable mess.

The Statue of Santa Barbara (c. 19th Century)

The restoration attempt of the statue of Santa Barbara in Spain, which dates back to the nineteenth century, took a drastic turn as the result turned out to be a plastic-like Barbie doll.

The restoration efforts brought a life-like appearance, with several creative choices in the coloring and shading. The unfortunate result was a yellow-toned face, modern-looking eyebrows, charcoal-colored eyeliner, and a plastic Barbie doll.

Saint George (C. 16th Century)

Ill-advised brushstrokes resulted in a Saint George sculpture sporting a soft pink face, brightly colored armor, and resembling a Tintin or Playmobil figure.

The restoration team covered the original characteristics of the sculpture, leading to widespread condemnation and ridicule.

Mary and Baby Jesus Statue (20th Century)

In 2012, a media frenzy ensued after the head of a white stone statue of Mary and Baby Jesus in Ontario was stolen. The statue underwent a temporary clay substitute to restore its original look and was later replaced with a permanent head made of stone.

However, the new head was a different shade of red, resulting in ridicule and widespread media attention. A mystery thief later admitted to stealing the original head.

Buddhist Frescoes (Qing Dynasty)

In 2018, a cultural heritage inspection team in China hired an administrator to restore a 270-year-old shrine’s Buddhist frescoes. Instead, the frescoes were painted over with cartoon-style Taoist characters.

The Communist Party Chairman fired and warned the administrator of his oversight, leading to widespread criticism.


Art restoration is not an easy task and requires specialized skills, knowledge, and equipment. Unfortunately, some people may use the opportunity to try out their restoration skills, leading to disastrous consequences.

The resulting damage can be irreversible, causing the loss of significant cultural and historical heritage. Therefore, it is essential to seek the help of professionals in any restoration attempt and leave the preservation of artwork and monuments to the experts.

In summary, failed art restoration attempts are common, and they can result from extreme conditions, natural disasters, thievery, mishandling, deteriorating forces, amateur interference, mismanaged citizen initiatives, and audacious creative choices. This article highlights some examples of disastrous art restoration attempts, providing a valuable lesson on the importance of exercising caution and seeking professional assistance.

It is essential to recognize the significance of preserving cultural and historical heritage and to leave any restoration attempts to the experts. This way, we can avoid irreversible damage that could lead to the loss of valuable art pieces.

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