“Scream” Theft Focuses Attention on Art Insurance

August 24, 2004

The theft on Sunday of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, has provoked a number of comments and analysis from the world’s media. Discussions have focused on the work’s iconic importance as a symbol of 20th century angst, on questions about security measures, and on the fact that many of the world’s great works of art aren’t covered by insurance.

Although The Scream was covered for damages, flood, fire, vandalism, etc., it wasn’t insured against theft. In a timely report on the situation the BBC interviewed some of the leading experts on protecting works of art. Adam Golder, chief executive of Axa Art UK – http://www.axa-art.com/, told the interviewer that a significant number of major works of art don’t have insurance coverage against theft, either because the owners don’t think they need it (paintings like The Scream are almost impossible to sell) or they can’t afford it.

If they are insured at all it’s frequently for only a fraction of their value.
The BBC quoted Robert Graham, insurance broker with Blackwall Green, who said: “Often they’re not insured at all. If they’re in national museum collections or regional museum collections, they simply don’t have the finances to pay for insurance.” He indicated, however, that most important private collections usually insured their collections in full. He added that most galleries made sure the chance of a theft was very low by spending money on security rather than insurance.

Along with the expense of insuring famous works is the problem of replacement. By definition such works are unique; no amount of money can replace them. Although the BBC report didn’t mention it, insuring a work of art for a high value might also make it a target for thieves, hoping to ransom it back at the expense of the insurance company.

The report noted: “In the UK, the famous and valuable works in the permanent collections of national institutions such as the Tate and National Gallery are not insured at all. Government-funded institutions are forbidden from taking out commercial insurance for their permanent collections, with a special government scheme to cover items on loan.”

It also stressed that for private coverage security “is one of the main factors when insurers work out how much art owners should pay in premiums – along with who the owner is and how trustworthy they are.”

AXA’s Golder indicated that theft insurance would not usually add a huge amount to fire and water cover – unless the security was not considered to be “up to scratch” – and insurers would rarely refuse to protect an item. “There are cases where insurers may not insure because of the way things are kept, but usually insurance would be available,” he concluded.

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