In the white-walled halls of a Florida art fair, a thunderous bam! on Thursday night brought art aficionados, collectors and artists to a halt as shards of chrome-blue porcelain sprayed up into the air like confetti.
But where aghast guests saw the loss of a $42,000 artwork, Stephen Gamson, an artist and collector who witnessed the sculpture’s fall, saw an invaluable piece of art history. He’s now hoping to add each fraction of the smashed “Balloon Dog (Blue)” — a 2021 work that stood a little over a foot tall — to a personal collection of ephemera that includes Roy Lichtenstein’s ruler, Kenny Scharf’s refrigerator door and “multiple paint brushes from famous artists,” Gamson told The Washington Post.
“For me, it’s like some kid collecting baseball cards,” Gamson said. “I’m really into it and, when you’re that passionate about it, even broken pieces or damaged pieces have value to you.”
And Gamson isn’t the only one interested in acquiring the broken pieces, according to Bel-Air Fine Art, the contemporary art gallery presenting the sculpture. In a statement to The Post on Tuesday, the gallery’s district manager Cédric Boero said “some collectors offered to buy the shards and we are still receiving offers as we speak.”
Gamson said he knew he’d laid eyes on something special as soon as he saw the work atop a transparent pedestal. “Oh look, there’s a Jeff Koons balloon dog,” Gamson said he told a friend. “And just as I said that, a woman walked close to the stand, and I watched the whole thing shatter.”
The reaction was a mix of confusion and surprise, he said. Dozens of people with looks of utter shock circled the metallic remains. Others whipped out their phones to record the “just unheard of” incident, Gamson said. A chorus of “Oh my God!” resounded in the air.
“I can’t believe someone would knock that over,” a man said in a clip of the aftermath shared by Gamson.
“See now, that is the new art installation there … because everything’s art, isn’t it?” a woman quipped.
“This is the most popular booth in the whole fair,” another man added.
As workers brushed the porcelain pieces into dustpans, some wondered whether they were in the midst of a Banksy-inspired prank or a duct-taped banana type of shenanigan, Gamson said.
Banksy tried to destroy his art after it sold for $1.4 million. The shredded version just went for $25.4 million.
The explanation was much simpler: Boero, who was managing the gallery’s booth on Thursday, said the sculpture went flying after a woman gave its pedestal “unintentionally a little kick.” The loss will be covered by insurance, he added.
“This sort of thing happens,” said Steven Keller, a Florida-based security consultant for museums and cultural sites, “and a lot of times it’s because people are not careful enough and because they can be incredibly naive about art.”
Though outright destruction of artwork is uncommon, Keller said instances that produce lesser damage are not unheard of. In his 40 years of working with over 950 institutions, Keller said he’s seen people turn historic sculptures on their pedestals to take better selfies or scrub their fingers up and down priceless masterpieces. But even then, museums tend to have systems to protect the pieces, while galleries and art fairs typically don’t.
“You can put these pieces inside a vitrine, that would be a solution,” Keller said. “But when something is for sale, they take a chance on it because they don’t want to diminish the spectacular appearance of it to somebody who might be there to buy it.”
Art Wynwood declined to comment on the incident. In a news release, it said the event featured pieces from 50 international galleries, including Bel-Air Fine Art, which still has listings for an assortment of Koons’s balloon creations, including a monkey, dog and swan.
But even if he won’t get to own a (whole) balloon dog, Gamson still relishes the added layers of meaning the fall brought to the sculpture. Perhaps, he said, it would even inject some inspiration to his own pop art-style pieces.
“Maybe the fact that we can still value [the sculpture] means something good comes out of every bad situation,” Gamson said. “Or maybe the crazy attention this whole thing’s been getting means people will pay more attention to the arts in our country, which really can enhance someone’s life, you know?”
A bunny sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million — another sign that the art world is untethered from reality
Koons, who in 2019 set a record for the most expensive work sold at an auction by a living artist, first conceptualized balloons as art for his 1994 “Celebration” series. The blowup animals, which are displayed in shades of magenta, blue, red, orange and yellow, are “eternally optimistic” and representative of humanity, Koons said in 2014. But they’ve been damaged before — and also found new life.
After another balloon dog was shattered in 2008, it became a feature at the traveling museum Salvage Art Institute, which has an inventory of damaged artwork. When The Post in 2013 asked the artist whether broken art can still be perfect, Koons said: “You can find a hierarchy of the significance of different things, but not of value, of being. Everything is perfect for what it is.”
Now the world has one less balloon dog. Boero said the recently shattered one, which was part of a series of 799, is sitting inside a box, awaiting an insurance company’s review to pass to its next owner.