The Wildest Art Stories of 2023

Centuries ago, in 2022, the FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art and hauled away 25 fake Basquiats that had been on public display as the real deal for five months. Not one to be outdone, the year 2023 brought us a former auctioneer confessing to forging the works and selling them for cash out of the trunk of his car in a parking lot, the Florida institution accusing its former director of plotting the whole thing for personal gain, and — wait, there’s more! — said ex-director claiming the whole thing is a ploy to scapegoat him for the board’s misdeeds, including eliciting a false confession from the repentant forger.

If that doesn’t perfectly sum up the last 12 months for you … Indeed, this year has one-upped the last in almost every way. So without further ado, here are the wildest art stories of 2023 — from stunning art-historical discoveries and tourists’ eyebrow-raising transgressions to moments of blatant institutional failure.

Rogue Tourists

John Bacon’s statue of Sabrina (c. 1785 or 1802), Coade stone (photo courtesy National Trust)
  • Can your five-year-old do this? A prominent 18th-century sculpture of a water nymph by British artist John Bacon was found scribbled over in (fortunately washable) blue crayon.
  • In Rome, a tourist was filmed unbelievably etching his name and that of his beloved onto the wall of the 2,000-year-old Colosseum. The visitor who caught the whole thing on camera can be heard in the background, asking: “Are you f–ing serious, man?”
  • Also in Rome, a woman was caught trespassing on the famous Trevi Fountain to refill her water bottle. Record-breaking heat in the region this summer may be partly to blame, but still — that’s one thirsty tourist.
  • A woman got a little too close to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid sculpture, not only climbing the work but also posing for a photo pretending to kiss the iconic sea dweller as flabbergasted crowds looked on and booed in disbelief.
  • Just a few weeks earlier, a German man was detained in Florence for ascending a 16th-century marble statue of Neptune for a selfie in Florence. Travelers to the region have gotten so audacious that Italy’s culture ministry threatened to impose five-figure fines for infractions.

Questionable Institutional Choices

  • The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, no stranger to SMH moments, told a Black artist to leave an exhibition specifically envisioned as a safe space of rest for Black visitors. The incident followed a White woman’s complaint that British-Ghanaian artist Heather Agyepong was being “aggressive” for asking her to lower her voice. You really can’t make this stuff up.
  • The Portland Art Museum issued a public apology after asking one of its visitors to remove her Indigenous baby carrier, citing its backpack policy. The mother, who is of Karuk descent, took to Facebook to denounce the incident, writing: “The Portland Art Museum, where being Indigenous is cool as long you are part of the exhibit and not actually practicing your culture.”
  • The German contemporary art exhibition Documenta publicly condemned the curators of its 2022 edition, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, for simply “liking” social media posts expressing support of Palestine. It’s one of many examples this year of organizations going after artists who have called for a ceasefire in Gaza, criticized the Israeli regime, and voiced or implied support of the movement for Palestinian liberation. Others, especially smaller spaces that are less dependent on market and institutional backing, are vocally pro-Palestine, as Hyperallergic also reported.

A fresco of fertility god Priapus weighing his penis was found in Pompeii. (© Silvia Vacca; courtesy Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
  • The ancient archeological site of Pompeii really is the gift that keeps on giving, and this year, it endowed us with an, um, sizable discovery: A fresco of a god seemingly weighing his frankly massive penis on a scale. A few weeks later, researchers revealed what may be the first-known Ancient Roman dildo, a tapered wooden object previously thought to have been used as a knitting tool. You can’t fool me, grandma.
  • Speaking of big, archeologists in Rome pulled a life-sized Hercules sculpture out of the ground while working on a routine sewer repair.
  • Egypt may have uncovered its “oldest and most complete” mummy — er, mummified person — along with Old Kingdom-era stoneware and amulets near the Pyramid of Djoser.
  • Meanwhile, in Peru, a man was discovered to be carrying a mummified body in a food delivery backpack. He reportedly referred to the centuries-old remains as “Juanita,” his “spiritual girlfriend.” 😳
  • Not all discoveries were thousands of years old, and they weren’t always dug out of the earth. Sometimes they were hiding in plain sight, like this tiny demon concealed under layers of varnish in an 18th-century Joshua Reynolds painting. Kudos to England’s National Trust for identifying the terrifying fanged creature during cleaning and conservation of the work to mark the artist’s 300th birthday.

Shameless, Simply Shameless

  • After New York art consultant Lisa Schiff was accused of “running a Ponzi scheme” in May and slammed with two costly lawsuits for alleged embezzlement and fraud, the Manhattan advisor filed for bankruptcy less than a week later and began liquidating her company Schiff Fine Arts in order to repay her debts, which amount to at least $3 million. In August, a document filed by her bankruptcy lawyer revealed that Schiff actually owed money to dozens of collectors, galleries, and businesses — and independent investigators claimed that 108 artworks totaling over $1 million that were in her company’s possession could not be located.
  • A former payroll manager at the Art Institute of Chicago was indicted for depositing over $2 million in museum funds to his personal bank account. Charged with two counts of wire fraud and two counts of bank fraud, 56-year-old Michael Maurello hid the misappropriated funds by stealthily altering information in the museum’s payroll system in an illicit scheme that went on for 13 years.
  • For more than a decade, Washington artists Jerry Chris Van Dyke and Lewis Anthony Rath sold Native artwork under the false pretense that it was authentic by misrepresenting themselves as Indigenous tribal members. After pleading guilty to violating the “truth-in-advertising” Indian Arts and Crafts Act, Van Dyke received an 18-month federal probation sentence in May while Rath was sentenced to 24 months probation and 200 hours of community service in September.
  • The British Museum launched an independent investigation into approximately 2,000 missing or damaged items in its collection, mainly gems and jewelry in the Department of Greece and Rome largely believed to have been stolen by an as-yet-unnamed staff member dismissed in August of this year. (British outlets reported that the employee in question was Peter Higgs, senior curator of Greek art, though Higgs’s representatives have so far denied his involvement.)

Thousands signed a petition to support Dan Rossi, a hot-dog seller stationed outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo courtesy Elizabeth Rossi)

Feel-Good Moments

  • When New Yorkers learned “Hot Dog King” Dan Rossi had been sleeping in his iconic cart outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the past 11 years, they showed him an outpouring of support. Over 56,000 people signed a petition urging the city to help Rossi, who thinks the city’s poor oversight of vending permits (officially distributed to disabled veterans only) has subjected him to unfair levels of competition.
  • A Dutch chef made an acute observation while visiting Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum: The “onions” in the artist’s “Red Cabbages and Onions” (1887) looked a lot like garlic. Ernst de Witte convinced the museum to retitle the painting, and he now serves a red cabbage and garlic dish at his Utrecht restaurant in its honor.
  • Using x-ray fluorescence, researchers discovered a floppy-eared pup wearing a bowtie in a 123-year-old Picasso painting depicting a Bohemian scene of a Paris cabaret. While the artist had intentionally covered up the tiny dog, it turns out he was a canine lover in his lifetime; a friend once described the artist’s relationship with his Dachshund as a “love affair.” Picasso remains all sorts of problematic, but who doesn’t love puppies?
  • A Barcelona museum partnered with a nudist club to host special tours of an exhibition featuring photographs of Ancient Greek sculptures. Notably, both the artworks’ subjects and the museumgoers were naked. As one docent mused, “We wanted people who came to see it to feel exactly the same as the work they were looking at.”

Artworks That Caused Controversy

  • A Florida principal was forced to resign for showing sixth-grade students an image of Michelangelo’s “David” (1501–1504) after parents complained that the Italian Renaissance sculpture was “pornographic.” Just as weird, or maybe weirder, given that nothing surprises us anymore in Ron DeSantis’s dystopian Florida, is the fact that an early episode of the Simpsons from 1990 appeared to predict the incident.
  • A rather curvaceous likeness of a mermaid caused a stir in the small fishing town of Monopoli in Puglia, Italy. Honoring eminent Italian scientist and Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini, the sculpture was described as a “tribute to the great majority of women, who are curvy,” but some found the voluptuous figure “provocative.”
  • Oddly captured photographs of Hank Willis Thomas’s public artwork “The Embrace,” unveiled this January, elicited a nearly immediate outpouring of hilarious posts and memes as users perceived depictions of various sexual acts in the bronze’s intertwining limbs. The memorial to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King stands in the Boston Common’s 1965 Freedom Plaza, and locals who were able to see it in person told Hyperallergic they admired the piece.
  • A Hamline University professor in Minnesota was let go after she displayed Medieval Islamic depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad during an art history lesson. Erika López Prater issued a content warning before showing the images, the prohibition of which varies across Islam traditions.

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