But the real story behind Máximo Caminero and the million-dollar urn isn't so simple. Beneath the moment of madness lies a lifetime of artistic struggle. And what seemed like senseless destruction was also the final brushstroke in a self-portrait of pain, divorce, and near-death experiences.

"I never expected that this was going to escalate all over the world."

His protest also illustrated the real plight of local artists, who claim that the billions spent here during Art Basel and other fairs don't trickle down to those who need it most. Although most Miami artists disagree with what Caminero did, there is no doubt he has broken open a serious debate over where local artists fit into this city's growing international reputation.

"People here live like robots," Caminero says. "You see the cars line up on the highway in the morning. They are like slaves. Every once in a while, something has to shatter for people to stop and realize what's really going on."


Caminero works on a painting in his studio, whose walls are lined with quotes such as "Passion is a ruin."
Michael E. Miller
Caminero works on a painting in his studio, whose walls are lined with quotes such as "Passion is a ruin."
Caminero holds up quotes by Ai Weiwei.
Michael E. Miller
Caminero holds up quotes by Ai Weiwei.

Caminero wasn't the first to cause outrage by attacking an artwork. Almost as long as humans have created art, others have abused the pieces to make a point, to push an agenda, or simply to fulfill their insane desires.

"Destruction is a creative act in many ways," says Daniel Jewesbury, an art professor at the University of Ulster. "But like art itself, we need to think of what the motives for it are, what it really achieves, and whether something has been lost that outweighs the point made."

Art vandalism, as the term suggests, began with the Vandals. The Germanic tribes swept across Europe in the Fifth Century, sacking Rome and smashing many of its statues.

The word "vandalism" was coined during the French Revolution, when religious paintings were destroyed during the Reign of Terror. Since then, some of the world's most famous artworks have been slashed, shot, or sprayed with acid. Even Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa has been a target.

Most of the time, pure mental illness is to blame. In 1972, a Hungarian geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into St. Peter's Basilica and attacked Michelangelo's La Pieta with a hammer while screaming, "I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!" Robert Cambridge blasted da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist from close range with a shotgun in London's National Gallery in 1987, causing considerable damage.

The insane scourge of the art world, however, was Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. For 30 years, the German traveled around Europe spraying the faces of famous portraits with sulfuric acid. Bohlmann, who suffered from a personality disorder, damaged $200 million worth of paintings before his death in 2009.

Occasionally, art attackers are driven not by personal demons but by politics. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi spray-painted "Kill lies all" on Pablo Picasso's antiwar manifesto Guernica to protest Richard Nixon's pardon of the soldier responsible for the My Lai massacre. In 2004, Zvi Mazel — the Israeli ambassador to Sweden — tried to destroy a piece about Palestinian suicide bombers because he thought it was anti-Semitic.

But the most bizarre assaults are always those committed by other artists. In 1996, a Canadian art school student methodically set out to vomit primary colors on three famous paintings. Jubal Brown first ralphed in deep red all over a painting by French impressionist Raoul Dufy. ("[It] was just so boring it needed some color," Brown said.) Six months later, he barfed in blue on a Mondrian. It's unclear whether Brown ever completed his trilogy, titled Responding to Art.

Other art interventions have been more highbrow, or at least have avoided bodily fluids. In 1953, American artist Robert Rauschenberg painstakingly erased a drawing by the great abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and then hung it as his own. Many people considered it "a pure act of destruction, vandalism," Rauschenberg later admitted. But for him, it was "poetry."

Caminero's own protest was presaged by a similar event in 2012, when a Swiss art collector smashed a Han Dynasty urn that Ai Weiwei had covered with a Coca-Cola label. Critics praised that copycat performance.

Yet there was a crucial difference between these artists and Caminero. They all owned the pieces they destroyed. He did not.

It was only when police officers slapped handcuffs on his wrists and sat him inside a squad car that Caminero began to have second thoughts. Those thoughts darkened when cops began blindly asking museum officials how much the urn was worth — a guesstimate that could affect the charges against Caminero.

"Fifty thousand?" one officer asked. Caminero gulped. He thought the urn had been a replica from Home Depot, not a Han Dynasty original.

"More," said a museum official.

"A hundred thousand?" the cop tried again.

"No. More," the official answered. Caminero could feel his future being crushed under the absurd auction.

"Five hundred thousand," the official finally estimated. The cop rounded up to an even million, just to be safe.


Rosanna Caminero didn't know her ex-husband had been arrested until she turned on Good Morning America. But the man whose somber mug shot flashed across the screen wasn't the Caminero she knew. That Máximo Caminero had died eight years earlier, with the flick of a pen.

Caminero's act of protest was over in an instant. But in many ways, his life had been building toward that breaking point for eight years. Ever since his and Rosanna's divorce, Caminero had let himself become a different person: an artist willing to suffer scandal — even five years in prison — to make a point.

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