3 Famous Conservation/Restoration Blunders

And What We Can Learn From Them

In the preservation world, there are many examples of failed restoration and conservation projects. Regardless of the good intentions of the volunteer or the shiny, futuristic suggestion of modernist, in the three examples below, the pieces have marred in one way or another: one destroyed beyond repair, another required backpedaling to save the piece from the restoration attempt and another waiting in the wings for the final stroke of fate.

When beginning a restoration or conservation project, extensive physical and archival research is required for a successful result. Research done prior to the project prepares the conservator or restorer for difficulties along the way. Amateur restoration jobs often lead to irreparable damage to these priceless cultural artifacts. Misinterpretations of the original artist’s or architect’s intent, paired with ignorance and a lack of skill necessary for an adequate restoration, can destroy the integrity of the original work. Below, we examine a handful of the more famous restoration and conservation blunders that have happened in recent years to help you understand what you should avoid when approaching any form of renewal in your historic structures.

1. Painting: Ecce Homo, Borja, Spain

The most famous conservation mistake, perhaps of all time, involves a painting of Christ in a cathedral in Borja, Spain. Titled Ecce Homo and originally painted around the year 1930 by the Spanish artist Elías Garciía Martínez, the painting had become damaged due to age and exposure to the elements, which caused sections of the work to flake off. This damage is what inspired an 80-year old parishioner and amateur artist named Doña Cecilia Giménez to attempt to restore the painting on her own with the blessing of the priest (New York Times). The results of this amateur restoration are devastating, with much of the original historic detail lost under new paint. The image now attracts giggling spectators instead of reverent visitors. On a positive note, the painting has attracted immense tourism. Then again, on the negative, the visitors making the effort to see this work are more interested in their next tweet than in history, art, and architecture—not exactly the tour group you want walking through a cathedral.


Identifying Historic Paint: A Guide to the Significance of Paint in Historic Structures


2. Sculpture: Statue of St. George, Estella, Spain

St-George-and-The-Dragon-Estella-Spain-Before-and-After-1-660x371 (1)

More recently, Spain saw another botched amateur restoration, this time in the repainting of a wooden carved sculpture of St. George located at St. Michael’s Church in Estella, Spain.

A rare example of polychrome (or “painted”) sculpture, the work had originally been completed in the 16th century. Over the years, the wood had darkened with age and filth, and the paint had begun to flake off in sections. Still, despite the age and damage, the sculpture retained an astonishing amount of detail and subtlety.

The local priest, in an attempt to combat this damage, hired a local art teacher for the job, who proceeded to cover over most of the original detail and intent with what has been called “cartoonish” pigments. In fact, the New York Times  pointed out an unfortunate resemblance between the sculpture and Herge’s Tintin cartoon, as opposed to a precious statue of more than 500 years.

“Just a touch of paint here and there, the statue will be good as new.” Not entirely untrue, but the amount of overpainted statues in the world could overflow the continental United States. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration but there is no exaggeration in describing the results of these “restorations” as borderline dark humor.

Statue Re-restored! 

June 26, 2019

No longer a cartoon! The example discussed above was recently un-restored in order to be restored truer to the piece's original design. 

The venture was no simple task costing nearly $34,000.00 to turn back the last year in the statue's history. Though closer to the original design, the previous, poor restoration attempt will forever haunt the authenticity of the statue. 

We are grateful the statue's dignity is restored and has returned to the public view as a wonder of the past rather than the laughing stock of our crass meming culture.

3. Architecture: The Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France


Right now we are living on a prayer as different architectural suggestions are released for restoring the Notre Dame de Paris after the devastating April fire. Architects from all over the world are submitting proposals for a new roof very different from what was lost in the blaze, including a number of different versions of a new glass roof. This is very interesting, considering this new design completely defies the intention and design of the gothic architecture that the Notre Dame famously exemplifies.

While there is a place for modernism, the place is not Notre Dame. The church has already suffered a fire; let us avoid driving a spear into the heart of the sacred architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Stained Glass Roof

The renovation and restorations of Notre Dame in the mid-19th century by Viollet-le-Duc were modern in the sense that they were new, but fitting to the architecture by design. Extensive research was done on behalf of the restoration effort to ensure the preservation of the church’s historical and architectural integrity. Though it is true that times change, beauty and truth do not. Most of these new proposed designs are not true to the original—they don’t even try to complement the architecture the way the previous changes and restorations gave careful attention to the integrity of the building. We include the Notre Dame in this list hoping that the eventual restoration can, in fact, avoid being called a mistake.

Learning From These Mistakes

We don’t discuss these famous restoration mistakes to point out that there are lessons to be learned from past errors. In each of the cases listed above, actions led to a loss of history and culture that is difficult, if not impossible, to undo. If you own or are working on a historic structure that includes historic decorative elements (like paint, plasterwork, stonework, or something else entirely), it is important that you take a step back before charging ahead with good intentions for restoring the work on your own. When it comes to restoration and conservation, it is paramount that the proper steps and careful attention to the original form is analyzed and preserved. The key to restoration and conservation is preparation. Without appropriate study of the original materials, methods, history, and purpose of the object at hand, the chance of misinterpretation becomes greater. Without proper expertise to execute the project, it is possible to cause costly or even irreversible damage. When in doubt, we always recommend that owners and architects start any project with a study to analyze the work at hand. A historic paint and finishes investigation or a plaster conditions survey can be a great place to start, offering essential documentation of the work as-is and offering suggestions for next steps. After the initial study is complete, extreme care should be taken in choosing a contractor skilled in recreating historic elements.


Identifying Historic Paint:

A Guide to the Significance of Paint in Historic Structures