When in 2004 fire ripped through an East London warehouse housing a large selection of British contemporary art, certain sections of the print media could scarcely contain their glee. Purporting to speak for their readership, they had always seen the Britart movement as a scam foisted on the British public by talentless artists and funded by a rich patron – Charles Saatchi. For them art should be nothing more challenging than a rural idyll in a gilt-edged frame. One artist in particular got their goat and when Tracey Emin burst on the scene with ‘that unmade bed’ they took great delight in mocking it. But, by putting it on the front page of newspapers that sold in their millions, they ensured that the work of the Turner Prize-winning artist reached a truly mass audience. Any publicity was good publicity and, fuelled by their notoriety, artists such as Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers flourished and prospered.
When not being displayed, many of their works were housed in the Momart warehouse – a storage facility leased from a removals company. A fire started when burglars sought to cover their tracks in an adjacent building by torching it. The fire quickly spread throughout the whole complex, destroying such notable works as Emin’s ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’ and the Chapman Brothers ‘Hell’. The fire was not fully extinguished for a full two days and it was feared that all the artworks stored were lost. Miraculously some works did survive the blaze, including ‘Charity’ -a bronze by Hirst.
While the art world mourned its loss, Tracey Emin put things into perspective stating that, when set against the suffering in places such as Iraq and the Dominican Republic, the destruction of her work was of only minor importance.
When was the Momart Fire: May 24 2004
Where was the Momart Fire: Leyton, East London, UK
Toll: The artworks lost were valued at between £30 and £50 million.
You should know: Many artists, patrons and curators questioned the wisdom of housing such important works in what was a multiple-occupancy building. Even after the fire those who lost their collections were treated to the further indignity of seeing Uri Geller sifting through the wreckage. He told the media that he wished to create a single piece from the fragments he found – thankfully the threat of legal action put a halt to his ill-conceived plans.