Man Smashes Rare Mayan and Chinese Works at Denver Art Museum, Police Say

A man was arrested at the Denver Art Museum this weekend after he pushed over an exhibition case and hurled works of art to the floor, damaging rare Mayan artifacts and a Qing dynasty Chinese vase, according to the Denver police.

The man, Jake Siebenlist, 18, was charged with criminal mischief on Sunday. The vandalism began when Mr. Siebenlist shoved patrons aside and, as he was being pursued, grabbed sculptures that he threw across the gallery and smashed to the floor, the police said. He also tried to damage two paintings enclosed in protective plastic before museum officials tackled him to the ground, according to the police.

At a news conference on Monday, museum officials could not explain Mr. Siebenlist’s actions. “If you destroy artwork in a gallery, that is, to begin with, pretty weird,” said Christoph Heinrich, the director of the museum. “And he was very aggravated and, obviously, not in a state of mind that was reasonable.”

In all, 10 works were damaged, including the Chinese vase with phoenixes, a Mayan vessel shaped like a fish, and a wolf mask and headdress. The value of the objects was not disclosed. They were part of a new exhibition, “Stampede: Animals in Art,” a more than 300-piece show on display until May that highlights artwork from the museum’s collection.

The incident was captured on surveillance video, which has not been released. Mr. Heinrich said Mr. Siebenlist, who had bought a ticket to the show, did not explain his motivation but used “a lot of force,” suggesting that his actions were not accidental. The artwork in the exhibition was not controversial, Mr. Heinrich said.

Conservators are assessing the damage, and Mr. Heinrich said he hoped all of the objects would be repaired. In addition to the damaged pieces, the exhibition includes artwork from well-known artists including the photographers Elliott Erwitt and Eadweard Muybridge and from the sculptors Deborah Butterfield and Frederic Remington. There is also a centuries-old guardian lion from northern Thailand.

“This is a totally unreasonable, weird thing and it happened the very first time in my museum career,” Mr. Heinrich said. He added that it was also a first for the museum.

People have been known to purposely damage art in museums, although such incidents are rare. In 1972, a man struck Michelangelo’s “Pietà” statue with a hammer several times, damaging the nose and arm of the Virgin Mary, who holds a crucified Jesus in her lap. (The sculpture is housed at the Vatican.) Two years later, Tony Shafrazi, who would later become a gallery owner, spray-painted the words “Kill Lies All” over Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

More recent cases have been accidental, particularly among the selfie-taking crowd. This year, a wall was knocked over at an exhibition in Russia, damaging artwork by Francisco Goya and Salvador Dalí. In 2017, a visitor taking a selfie at the 14th Factory, a temporary arts space in Los Angeles, knocked down a row of crown sculptures in a domino effect, causing about $200,000 in damage.

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