If these walls could talk

After 30 years of handling the highest-value and highest-profile fine art claims in the industry, Greg Smith, Executive Vice President at Berkley Asset Protection (a Berkley Company), knows that each piece connects to a story. His favorite one is about a Renoir that was gifted to a client by her grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust. The painting was proudly displayed in the family’s home—and then a wildfire came through. “At first glance, it looked like the heat had destroyed the piece,” Greg recounted. He shipped the piece immediately to an impressionist painting restorer, who realized immediately that most of the damage was actually not to the painting itself, but to its cover. The heat had turned the translucent Plexiglas opaque and dark brown. The cover looked terrible. Somehow, the artwork inside was relatively okay.

Someone who didn’t understand artwork might have easily discarded the piece. Instead, Greg assured the owner they’d do what was possible to fix it. “When we told her it was okay, she didn’t believe me. ‘No way!’ she said. We flew her to New York to see it, and when she laid eyes on the painting she cried—the emotion just overcame her looking at the piece. It felt great to save something that meant so much to someone.”

The piece was reframed, professionally shipped and installed, and lives on as an heirloom for her family.


Staying ahead of the storm


Collectors have a special investment in the fine art in their care. Whether the attachment is sentimental, intellectual, or financial, it’s natural to worry as a collector when you are in a storm’s path. And this year, only a few weeks out from California’s October wildfires and one of the most damaging hurricane seasons on record with Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, the experience of facing a storm is closer to home for many of us than we’d like.1

The best strategy is to have a plan in place for protecting things you care about deeply in case of a fire or storm. For Greg, he thinks about his rare map collection. As winter approaches, he knows what exactly he’ll do if there’s a winter storm—place his favorite maps in the bedroom, wrap them in plastic first and then cardboard, and then cover them with a plastic tarp. The location of his master bedroom is perfect, because there’s no plumbing above it. If a pipe bursts in his house, it won’t damage his maps there. In the world of fine arts, water is public enemy number one—it can have an adverse effect on almost every medium.

It helps to know the nuances particular to your home and your collection. For example, works on paper are the most at risk for water damage when temperatures freeze. Anything on boards or panels is a close second, as is furniture, as warping can occur. Outdoor sculpture is especially at risk during severe weather events. To protect art outdoors, it helps to move smaller items on the property in advance, so that they don’t become flying debris, or even to pre-build a plywood box that can be used to insulate art to help prevent physical damage.

The more you know, the more you can prepare beforehand. That way, you’re ready to jump into action when you know a storm is on its way.


Keep the power on


The first and most broadly applicable tip is to purchase and permanently install a generator in advance. During a winter storm, power is the ultimate key to your house surviving an event—without it, you can have pipe bursts, extreme temperature changes  and other risks that can be avoided. “The only downside is that your neighbors will know you have power and will come over, sleep, and bathe in your home,” Smith jokes.

If you have a tendency to lose power, you should at the very least consider a portable generator, though permanently installed is always best. It’s also important to make sure you have sufficient fuel reserves for your generator, as delivery is difficult after a storm. Before winter is a good time to check.


Let your art stay at home


Resist relocating fine art outside your home if you can. Handling and transit are the largest causes of loss for artwork. That means every time you move a piece, your risk of damage increases.

A permanently installed generator might someday make the difference between having to transport artwork and being able to keep it safe on-site.

If you don’t have a generator, move art to the best possible place within your home—on a higher level floor, off and away from the walls, at least two feet off the ground, and away from flooding below and pipes above. Then, cover the artwork in place.

Resist the urge to put your artwork in the car and drive. Remember, you may not know where you’re going, and if you stop on the way, your car is at risk for a break-in.

If you do have to move your artwork to another location, use professional packers and shippers. And if you’re relocating your artwork to a location with different environmental conditions, such as from Miami (high humidity) to NYC (cold temperatures with steam/radiator heat), seek professional advice on how to acclimate your art before you unpack and install it.


Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind


If you keep your artwork in storage for the winter season, it’s important to make sure you ask the facility director the right questions to help your valuables stay protected. These include:

  • What plan the facilities have in place for storms
  • Whether staff will be there 24/7 during a winter storm event
  • What back-up power and fuel source(s) are in place
  • Which floor your collection is stored on—if there is concern of a water event of any kind, ask immediately to be moved to a higher floor


Don’t be afraid to ask


In preparing for a storm, using your resources can make all the difference. “Most people don’t ask,” Greg explains. “Just think, if one piece of advice saves one piece of art that you are a custodian of, it’s worth it.” If you’re insured with a provider who has solid resources and knows fine arts, this knowledge can be a tremendous asset. “We’re in the trenches every day, we see the claims every day” explains Greg. “Asking for advice is free. And, it’s the simplest way of protecting your collection for the generations to come.”