Last week, London’s Evening Standard reported that a $78,000 bottle of cognac was accidentally broken by a wealthy patron at an exclusive club after he asked to study the bottle. The two-century-old brandy was scheduled to be included in a Guinness World Record-breaking cocktail later in the week. “Accidents happen,” said the bottle’s owner, rather than evoking the old rule of “you break it, you buy it.” If you break a product on display, can the owner really make you pay for the damage?
Yes—even if the shop hasn’t posted a warning sign.
If a “you break it, you buy it” sign isn’t displayed, you can be made to pay for something you break under tort law, with the claim that you were negligent. Take, for instance, the 2006 case of Nick Flynn. As the BBC reported, Flynn was touring a museum in Cambridge when he tripped over an untied shoelace and broke three Chinese vases. The vases were valued at over $400,000. The museum banned Mr. Flynn, but they probably could have made a case to sue for damages. When in a museum or a store with lots of valuables, it’s your responsibility to be careful; walking around with an untied shoelace is careless and could be deemed negligent.
Despite the legal means by which “you break it, you buy it” can be enforced, it rarely is. A store or museum can’t hold you hostage until you pay for damages. This leaves a potentially pricey lawsuit as the only means of money collection. In the case of breaking a really expensive object—like the $120 million Picasso in which a museumgoer accidentally tore a six-inch hole—it’s probably not worth it to sue, as the negligent individual almost certainly wouldn’t have enough money to pay. (Really rich people have to be more careful.)
If anything, “you break it, you buy it” signs act to encourage people to be more careful when handling property that’s not theirs. According to the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, the phrase dates back to at least 1952, when a Miami Beach gift shop posted the message “If you break it, you've bought it” above rows of fragile items.
More recently, the proverb has been called the “Pottery Barn Rule,” reportedly after a statement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to a 2004 book by investigative reporter Bob Woodward, Powell used that term to warn President George W. Bush that he would own all of Iraq’s problems if the United States invaded. Shortly after Woodward’s book came out, the Pottery Barn responded with a statement of their own: "This is very, very far from a policy of ours,” a public relations rep for the store told the St. Petersburg Times. “In the rare instance that something is broken in the store, it's written off as a loss.”
Thanks to Florencia Marotta-Wurgler of New York University and Mark Gergen of the University of California, Berkeley.