Pitt. museum guard charged with vandalizing painting

A guard at the Carnegie Museum of Art is accused of using a key to deface a $1.2 million painting.

The piece -- from Vija Celmins' "Night Sky" series -- was on display as part of the 2008 Carnegie International exhibit, according to a police affidavit. It was damaged beyond repair.

"I didn't like the painting," Timur Serebrykov told police when they arrested him at the museum on May 20, the affidavit said.

He added, "I'm sorry."

Mr. Serebrykov, 27, of Greenfield, was charged with one count of institutional vandalism. He has waived his right to a preliminary hearing.

James Sheets, whose law firm represents Mr. Serebrykov, said he may use a mental health defense.

"He's not someone who has anything against the art world," Mr. Sheets said. "He has cooperated fully with the police in their investigation."

Mr. Sheets said he doesn't believe his client has a prior criminal record.

Betsy Momich, a spokeswoman for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, said "there is a risk we take in displaying public art. It's unfortunate when something like this happens. But we take every precaution to keep it from happening."

Mr. Serebrykov was an employee of Capital Asset Protection, a contractor that provides security at the museum. A woman who answered the phone yesterday at the company's Neville Island headquarters declined to comment.

According to the police affidavit, the painting was damaged on May 16, leaving a "large vertical gouge" down its middle.

Ellen Baxter, the museum's chief conservator, told police that the art piece was a "total loss."

A surveillance tape caught Mr. Serebrykov in the act of defacing the painting, the affidavit said.

When officials at the museum called Mr. Serebrykov into a conference room, he denied any wrongdoing. City Detective Daniel Sullivan then told him about the surveillance tape, and he confessed.

The painting, an oil on canvas, 31 inches high by 371/2 inches wide, depicts a black backdrop covered with hundreds of white dots. It is part of the Carnegie's permanent collection, acquired in 1996.

It was one of at least eight paintings of the night sky on display in the museum's Gallery 15, part of the "Life on Mars" exhibit, the latest version of the Carnegie International. All were done by Ms. Celmins, a prominent artist who was born in Latvia and is now based in New York.

Neither she nor her gallery could be reached for comment yesterday.

Vandalizing art is relatively rare, but museums try to guard against it -- at the Carnegie and other major museums worldwide, officials bar visitors from carrying large bags that could hold spray paint, weapons and the like. A set of keys is another matter.

"If I had a gun in my pocket I could walk up and shoot you. It's similar in an art museum," said George T.M. Shackleford, chair of European art and modern art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

"We don't let you carry things in like backpacks, briefcases, suitcases or whatever, but we're not going to make people take keys out of their pocket. Alas, they can be used as a method of destruction in some way and there's nothing we can do, frankly, to stop the person who is in some way so out on a limb that they're ready to do damage to a work."

On the rare occasion art is vandalized, it is often to politically or religiously charged works.

That is why vandalizing one of the Celmins "Night Sky" paintings is particularly odd: they are simple paintings of stars in the sky and anything but aggressive, and usually described as "meditations."