The felt suit was one of an edition of 100 felt suits that were made in 1970 by the artist Joseph Beuys. It appeared as a suit, but it wasn’t a suit that you could wear; it was just this felt sculpture. The Tate acquired one of these in 1981. It was in the collection doing just fine, and then in 1989 it was requested for display, and when they went to look at it, it was unfortunately discovered to be infested with clothes moths. There were eggs, there were full moths, there were larvae and there were dead moths as well, and it resulted in a lot of the areas of the felt actually being disintegrated and eaten away completely, so it was an absolute tragedy in terms of the artwork and they did a lot of investigation to try and see if the artwork could be restored in some way, or conserved in some way.
Conclusions to the investigation were that the suit could not be restored or conserved. We didn’t have the technology available within the conservation profession to enable this to happen in a satisfactory way, and the work was just declared lost.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to find that object. I can only imagine that they would have been shocked and devastated. The main reason for entering this profession is that we love art. It’s a complete passion for us, and the protection of art is – I think it does go beyond a job for most people, I think it really feels like a calling – and the idea that something would be destroyed like that: I’m actually shaking right now, just thinking of it. It must have been horrible.
The original Beuys suit is currently strapped up in an archival box kept in Tate stores. It was treated for the infestation, so the moths are all dead. So at the moment, it just exists, but doesn’t.