Museum: Fast action may help save Picasso painting

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HOUSTON (AP) - Within minutes of a vandal spray painting a Pablo Picasso painting, Houston museum officials had rushed the valuable artwork into their onsite conservation lab as if it was an injured patient in need of emergency surgery.

“I think that’s a dramatic analogy, but I think that’s apt,” said Vance Muse, a spokesman for the Menil Collection, which owns the more than 80-year-old painting.

The fast action increased the odds of saving the painting, Muse said. The museum’s chief conservator has been working on it tirelessly since it was damaged June 13, and the restoration is going very well, he added.

The act of vandalism was caught in a 24-second video posted on YouTube. It shows a man dressed in black holding a stencil up to the work of art and then spray-painting the stencil before ripping it away and walking off. An image of a bullfighter, a bull and the word “conquista,” which is Spanish for conquest, is left behind.

Once the man walks away, the person taking the video walks up to the painting, recording the damage. This, plus the fact that the witness happened to film the vandal at the moment he damaged the painting, has some speculating whether the two were working together.

“People have wondered if this YouTube (video) was shot by a bystander who just happened to be there at that moment or if it’s more akin to perpetrators, plural,” Muse said. “I just don’t know. But I hope we find out.”

Houston police spokeswoman Jodi Silva said investigators are reviewing both surveillance video from the museum and the video posted on YouTube. When asked if police think the vandal and witness were working together, she said, “We’re taking all the information and we’re looking at all aspects of the incident.”

She would not say whether police have spoken to the witness who shot the video.

Muse, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from Berlin, said he didn’t have specific details about the restoration process because he was out of the country. However, he believed it was going well.

“Most of the damage, virtually all has been taken care of,” he said. “But you have to wait and see.”

He also didn’t know when the painting, “Woman in a Red Armchair,” would return to display.

“Even if the treatment is completed, it would need rest for quite a while,” he said. “We would not want to bring it out of the conservation lab prematurely.”

The museum’s chief conservator Brad Epley wasn’t available for questions Tuesday because he was working on the painting.

The key thing in restoration probably would be identifying what chemicals are in the spray paint to determine which solvent would be best to remove it, said Jennifer Logan, a chemistry professor who has taught courses on art conservation at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.

Logan theorized a range of solvents were probably tested to determine which one was strong enough to remove the spray paint without also dissolving the work’s original paint.

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