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Protesters arrested after throwing substance from soup cans at Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'

The protesters threw what appeared to be tomato soup at the painting at London's National Gallery, then glued themselves to the wall.
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Two protesters who threw a substance that appeared to be tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" painting Friday morning were arrested on charges of criminal damage and aggravated trespass, London police said.

Video of the incident shows the two protesters, who police said were with the group "Just Stop Oil," throwing the substance at the 1888 painting at the National Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square.

In the background of the video, onlookers gasped and called for security as the protesters kneeled in front of the painting and glued their hands to the wall underneath the painting.

“What is worth more, art or life?" one of the protesters asked upon kneeling.

"Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?" the protester continued. "The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can't even afford to heat a tin of soup."

Activists with their hands glued to the wall under Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" after throwing tomato soup on the painting at the National Gallery in London on Oct. 14, 2022.Just Stop Oil / AFP - Getty Images

The United Kingdom has been inching toward a recession and the pound fell to an all-time low against the U.S. dollar last month. The Conservative government plans to spend billions of pounds to offset high energy bills that are driving a cost-of-living crisis, but economists say the plan is unlikely to pan out.

"Just Stop Oil" defended the action on Twitter.

"Human creativity and brilliance is on show in this gallery, yet our heritage is being destroyed by our Government’s failure to act on the climate and cost of living crisis," the group tweeted.

Reactions to the action were mixed.

"Congrats on setting back the cause," one person tweeted.

"You can care about the planet without destroying other things of value," another said.

Officers took the protesters into custody after un-gluing them from the wall, according to Metropolitan Police.

The painting is unharmed other than some "minor damage to the frame," according to police and a spokesperson for the museum, who added that it lies behind a protective layer of glass.

Van Gogh paintings on display at museums in the Netherlands are also behind glass, according to the website Van Gogh Studio, which notes that glass protects from possible damage and discoloration caused by exposure to light, touching, dust, dirt and vandalism.

About five hours after the incident occurred, a spokesperson for the National Gallery said the painting was back on display.

The spokesperson declined requests for comment on the painting's estimated value or whether they would implement any changes to security measures.

The painting sold for nearly $40 million to an anonymous buyer in 1987, which was more than triple the record for an auctioned painting at the time, The Associated Press reported at the time.

Van Gogh completed the painting in the last months of his life, and told his brother he hoped to sell the work for $125, according to the AP. It is one of five paintings he completed of sunflowers, which are among his most famous works, according to the Van Gogh Museum.

The family of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, an American-British businessman, bought the painting for an undisclosed amount in 1934, according to the AP.

Van Gogh died by suicide in 1890 at age 37 after being unable to sell his paintings.

This isn't the first time a Van Gogh painting has sustained damage: two Van Gogh paintings, a portrait and a self-portrait, were vandalized at two different Amsterdam museums just weeks apart in 1978, according to The Art Newspaper.