Mysterious scratch marks on two 16th-century Italian masterpieces at the National Gallery have rekindled a bitter dispute about a cost-cutting drive that has seen security at the world-famous collection handed over to the private security firm Securitas.
The damage, apparently caused by fingernails or rings, is the latest development in the long-running battle over arrangements to oversee more than six million visitors a year.
Curatorial staff were shocked to find “clearly visible” scratches at the bottom of Saints Sebastian, Roch and Demetrius, painted in the 1520s by Ortolano. Further scratches were found at the bottom of Canon Ludovico di Terzi, an early 1560s portrait by Giovanni Battista Moroni. The National Gallery confirmed the scratches, but dismissed them as “minor” and said there was no evidence of how they had happened.
Warnings of an increased risk of vandalism and theft were first sounded in 2011 after the gallery – under its previous director, Sir Nicholas Penny – cut back on its warders or “gallery assistants”. Art and security experts feared that a decision to make each of them guard two rooms rather than one would make the collection more vulnerable. They were particularly surprised as the move came after an attack on two Poussin masterpieces. The gallery argued that the changes had been designed to improve efficiency rather than cut costs, bringing it into line with other similarly prestigious institutions worldwide.
Last July it appointed Securitas, one of Britain’s largest security firms, to oversee some visitor and security services, stating that no staff members would be made redundant. It meant that about 300 gallery assistants, who guard paintings and answer visitors’ questions, would be employed by Securitas rather than the gallery.
In October members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents gallery staff, voted to return to work after more than 100 days on strike over the outsourcing. The PCS reiterated its opposition to the privatisation, but an agreement was reached on terms and conditions and the reinstatement of a union representative who had been sacked during the dispute.
In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, the gallery’s new director, Gabriele Finaldi, said: “It was a bumpy period, but we have moved on. The outsourcing began in early November and is working rather well.”
However, the dispute is far from over. A PCS spokeswoman told the Observer: “A recent article quotes Dr Finaldi saying that the privatisation is ‘working rather well’. That’s not been the experience of staff at the gallery. Commitments to pay staff a living wage and broadly comparable terms and conditions for new starters remain unresolved, despite a commitment agreed. This commitment settled our dispute last year. Patience is running out.”
One staff member said: “The security has been cut back by Securitas. This can only be so Securitas can earn a profit on its contract with the gallery.”
Referring to Leonardo’s masterpiece in the Louvre in Paris, another said: “It is not uncommon for privatised Securitas staff at the National Gallery to tell visitors that they can find the Mona Lisa in the Sainsbury wing of the gallery! It’s no surprise that paintings are now getting damaged.”
Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, an outspoken critic of the National Gallery’s conservation policy, was alarmed by news of the scratched paintings, saying that it reflected the importance of having guards in every room. “When you’ve got a painting that’s 400 or 500 years old, it’s very fragile. With ever-increasing crowds, the current presentation is an invitation to mishap and injury,” he said.
A National Gallery spokeswoman said: “As part of routine daily checks to all our works, some minor scratches were observed in the varnish on two paintings. Both works were checked by curatorial staff before the gallery opened the following morning and the scratches to the varnish quickly reduced without the works even needing to be removed from the walls. There is no evidence to show how these occurred.”