No one accounted for the bird. Who would have?
The art collector had a second home in the mountains, where there was, among other things, a painting worth $7 million. One day a caretaker went to conduct a regular check of the property. The caretaker saw that all was in order, then left and locked up. Everything was secure.
But when the home was opened again weeks later, the painting had been damaged. The culprit was a bird who had accidentally been let inside by the caretaker and had been locked in for several weeks. As birds do, it had relieved itself all over the home, and the $7 million painting was among its targets.
No one had accounted for the bird. But the art collector did happen to have a fine art insurance policy, which paid to pack up the painting, ship it to a specialist, and have it restored. The policy also paid for a 5 percent loss in value of the painting because of the damage.
Christopher Wise, vice president of the insurer, DeWitt Stern Fine Art, says this is not a typical claim for his business, but it does illustrate why someone might invest in a fine art insurance policy.
Wise will give a talk to the Princeton Preservation Group on Tuesday, August 13, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Princeton Theological Seminary library. For more information, visit www.princetonpreservation.org. The group, which consists of librarians, archivists, curators, and others meets several times per year to hear lectures on preserving cultural artifacts of all kinds.
Fine art insurance represents a small corner of the overall insurance industry, covering not just paintings and such, but anything of rare or historic value. “Our market has been a real growth area for the last 25 years and a lot of attention is being paid to it,” Wise says. Fine art insurance is usually fairly cheap relative to the value of the items being insured compared to cars, for example, because expensive artifacts tend to be well taken care of.
Wise deals with a wide variety of clients, including the kind of people who buy expensive artworks for their yachts. “Having a yacht is a certain type of statement, and having a very important, highly sought-after piece of artwork goes along with it,” he says. (Insurance coverage for a work of art on a yacht would be pricier than usual due to all the bad things that can happen at sea. “You might sink, you might be boarded by a bunch of pirates, you have staff running around …” Wise says.)
But it’s not just the ultra-rich who find themselves in the art insurance market. Another group is otherwise non-wealthy people who happen to have a nice painting or a print in their house, perhaps as a family heirloom. “In those cases, high-end homeowners insurance providers, somebody like AAG or Chubb can very inexpensively insure your artwork with the exact same coverage that billionaires get, for a very reasonable rate,” Wise says.
Public and private institutions such as foundations and museums also must safeguard collections of fine art. For example, a historic house in a small town might have a few valuable things and a very limited budget, or a library might have a valuable historic archive.
Another group of people who might want art insurance are the artists themselves, who stand to lose everything in the event of a studio fire or other catastrophe.
Art gallery owners also often need fine art insurance because general commercial insurance does not cover artwork. Relying on property insurance also leaves artwork in insurance limbo while it is being transported from one place to another, say from an artists’ studio to a gallery, which is one of the most common places for a work of art to be damaged.
Wise is very familiar with the risks involved in transporting art. Before joining DeWitt Stern, he worked for UOVO Art, a company that specializes in storing, transporting, and installing art. Before that, he was director and co-founder of SD Fine Art Storage in New York. He grew up in northern California, where his father was a professor and his mother was a real estate attorney. “My family always tended to aesthetics,” he says.
At one point, Wise aspired to be an art critic. But he soon realized that he was better at managing the business side of the art world than writing about it, and managing the risks of handling and storing precious objects. “My skill sets are solving business problems and anticipating business problems for people who don’t think that way,” he says. “Almost nobody in the art world is business minded. It’s a big learning curve between us and our clients sometimes, but it’s pretty satisfying when people get it.”
The gravest risk to art has always been fire — nothing else can wipe out a collection so thoroughly. When Brazil’s National Museum burned in 2018, a 200-year-old collection of 20 million specimens was destroyed. Its value was incalculable.
After fire flooding is a dangerous threat, and one that has loomed large in the minds of art insurers ever since Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, where some people were storing paintings in basements. “As a result of that insurance markets became much more sensitive to below-grade storage,” Wise says. It’s now impossible to write a policy without discussing flood zones with the client.
The risk of art theft is greater in pop culture than in real life, despite several high-profile heists such as the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from an Oslo museum. “Art is relatively hard to fence,” he says. “There is not a big market for it. It is a concern and it does happen, but it’s not a Thomas Crown Affair thing.” Leaky roofs and plumbing are much more dangerous than a master jewel thief.
One risk that art insurance won’t protect you from is counterfeiting — if it’s discovered that your Picasso is not a Picasso, that’s your problem — though some forms of title insurance handle authenticity.
Wise recommends curators of institutions consider fine art insurance. “Fine art insurance is much less expensive than commercial property,” he says. “There are fewer claims, and people take much better care of it.”