Tut-Tut!: Or, “I Can Fix This,” Said the Art Restorer Before Going to Jail

King Tut Burial Mask

Art restoration experts often disagree over how much to intervene. A compulsive tinkerer can just as easily botch a precious masterpiece as renew it, and overzealous cleaning can leave a work looking whitewashed. But whether you favor a conservative or liberal approach to restoration, pretty much everyone can concur that breaking off the burial beard of a 3,300-year-old sarcophagus and then sticking it back on with cheap glue is, generally speaking, not a good practice. Especially when that beard belongs to King Tut. 

Restoration workers in Cairo are now facing jail time for doing just that. Hired by the Egyptian Museum in 2014 to clean and restore King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus, the workers accidentally snapped off the boy king’s braided beard, most likely by dropping his sculpted likeness on the floor. Fearing the public reaction, they attempted to epoxy it back on but left behind visible globs of glue and a conspicuous fracture line. They then tried to cover this secondary blunder by scraping away the excess adhesive using sharp tools, further damaging the precious casket.

The eight museum workers (among them, the former head of the Egyptian Museum, who was allegedly part of the cover-up) are accused of “ignoring all scientific methods of restoration” and will face trial. Is this the worst case of gross negligence in art history? Let’s explore a few other candidates for the title.

Ecce Homo


In 2012, Cecilia Giménez, an 83-year-old amateur artist in Spain, took a look at the fading fresco of Jesus in her local Sanctuary of Mercy church and decided it needed a touch-up. By the time she finished her unfortunate restoration, Elías García Martínez’s Ecce Homo looked more like Simba than Savior. The internet exploded with memes placing Christ’s disfigured face into other famous artworks and movie scenes. Even Saturday Night Live ran with the story, castigating the sloppy painter on a “Weekend Update” segment. The press coverage boosted the economy of small Borja, Spain, and the church received tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne


In December 2011 the Louvre unveiled a major restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child With Saint Anne to much critical praise. Leonardo’s bright auburns and lapis blues finally emerged from beneath 500-year-old dust and grime, and many agreed the oil painting was as vibrant as when the master first painted it. Two of France’s top art experts, however, loathed the results: Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Ségolène Bergeon-Langle resigned from their advisory posts on the museum’s restoration committee, claiming the painting had been overcleaned, leaving it more vivid than Leonardo had intended. “There are people who are very much for bright hues and strong cleaning,” said an anonymous source at the Louvre. “Those people are in charge.”

The Tree of Fertility


A nearly 800-year-old fresco discovered in an Italian cave in 1999, The Tree of Fertility depicts a crowd of women beneath a large tree whose fruit dangles tantalizingly above them—but these aren’t your normal apples or peaches. These “fruits” are fully erect penises. For all the controversy the painting drew when it was found, this was nothing compared to what erupted 12 years later. A 2011 restoration job airbrushed a number of the phalluses into oblivion, leaving conspicuous empty spaces where they used to be. The restorers were accused of censorship, but this crime was clearly more like castration.

Feature Photo: Flickr