Pillow slip ... Tracey Emin's piece 'My Bed' was tidied up by museum staff who thought it has been vandalised.

Pillow slip ... Tracey Emin's piece My Bed was tidied up by museum staff who thought it had been vandalised. Picture supplied by London's Tate Gallery

A cleaner at an Italian art gallery has thrown away contemporary artworks valued at $15,000, after mistaking them for a pile of rubbish.

The unnamed cleaner swept up the paper, cardboard and pieces of broken biscuit that had been scattered on the floor of the gallery in the southern town of Bari.

The boss of the cleaning firm said the woman was “just doing her job” and that the company’s insurers would pick up the bill for the damage to the works, which included pieces by Italian artist Nicola Gobbetto and David Jablonowski from Germany.

Bari marketing chief Antonio Maria Vasile apologised on behalf of the city for the error.

“It is clear the cleaning person did not realise she has thrown away two artworks and their value,” he told local press.

The cleaner’s mistake is just the latest in a series of incidents in which museum staff have confused modern art with rubbish.

In 2001, a cleaner at a west London gallery binned a pile of used ashtrays, newspapers and dirty beer bottles, not realising it was a work by notorious British artist Damien Hirst.

Hirst had arranged the junk the previous night at a launch party in a spontaneous installation.

"I didn't think for a second that it was a work of art - it didn't look much like art to me,” cleaner Emmanuel Asare reportedly said at the time. “So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it."

In 1999 an installation by Tracey Emin composed of an unmade bed, used condoms and underwear was ruined after museum attendants tidied it up, believing it to have been vandalised.

And a similarly over-zealous cleaner wrecked an installation called Untitled (Bathtub) by German artist Josef Beuys in 1986. The piece, displayed in Dusseldorf, consisted of a dirty bathtub, which the museum worker scrubbed clean.