Sandy’s Impact on Art Losses

By Denise Johnson | October 29, 2013

While damages as a result of Superstorm Sandy have been tallied for auto, home and business losses, art losses remain unquantifiable, according to Filippi Guerrini-Maraldi, head of Fine Art at RK Harrison Insurance Services in London. That’s because many works of art are still being restored.

However, while a precise figure for art losses from Sandy is not available, they are expected to top $300 million— a sizable loss given that total annual premium for the line is only $600 million, the fine art expert told Claims Journal.

“In theory, Superstorm Sandy was the largest direct natural catastrophe to hit the art market, which is a niche sector,” according to Guerrini-Maraldi. “Claims arising from flood-related issues – damp, mold, change in temperature due to loss of power – affected many works of art which were held in art storage warehouses, galleries and/or private homes.”

Heather Becker, CEO of the Chicago-based art restoration and conservation laboratory The Conservation Center, and her team were called on site after the storm hit.

“We were there on the ground on October 29th. We hovered in the region until we could get access,” she said. “Then we set up triage in a warehouse in the Bronx. We triaged over 2,000 items. Some we triaged on site and some we triaged in the warehouse, in order to determine what was salvageable.”

The items Becker and her team inspected varied.

“Everything from mixed media to sentimental family heirlooms, paintings, frames, works of art on paper, photography, documents, furniture; literally every type of item you could think of, as far as different mediums. I would say, though, the majority…were paintings and works of art on paper,” she said.

The Conservation Center’s team remained in New York for close to six weeks.

“We had rotating crews of about 12 people at a time working on‑site, and then every five or six days, we would rotate them out and give people a break, because they oftentimes had to wear Tyvek suits and respirators and all that kind of stuff, because this was obviously a very severe scenario,” said Becker.

Some items that were triaged and stabilized were then brought back to the Chicago lab for additional treatment.

“I believe we had about 600 pieces come back to the laboratory, and we have been working on them for several different accounts ever since then. We have about, I’d say, 150 pieces left that we’re still treating,” she said.

Sandy wasn’t unique in terms of the damage it caused to art.

“It’s dirty water. You also have debris mixed in with the water, in addition to the mold. It’s pretty standard. There wasn’t anything unusual about it,” she said.

Though damaging water after a storm is not new, it can still be extraordinarily destructive to art.

“Water can be hazardous to works of art in many forms. Whether from excessive humidity, accidental pipe burst or from mother nature’s fury in the form of heavy rains or coastal flooding; the presence of water has proven to be very damaging to all artworks, especially photographs,” according to Matthew Knight , AXA ART’s fine art expert.

Earlier this year, AXA ART exhibited a piece that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Damaged photographs, To Fight with Crossed Arms, 2007, ed 4/5, by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong-based duo MAP Office were displayed to highlight the damage that can be caused by water.

damaged photographs, To Fight with Crossed Arms, 2007, ed 4/5, by prolific Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong-based duo MAP Office. Photo: AXA ART
damaged photographs, To Fight with Crossed Arms, 2007, ed 4/5, by prolific Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong-based duo MAP Office. Photo: AXA ART

“Sandy was the costliest event for the art insurance industry by far and we are now living in a post-Sandy world. We all will need to adjust our disaster planning strategies to protect important works such as To Fight with Crossed Arms from becoming victims of water damage,” said Christiane Fischer, president & CEO of AXA ART in the Americas.

Challenges Becker and her team encountered related more to the type of art affected by the damage.

“The challenges, many times, is when you have color‑field paintings, any sort of a tide line is very challenging to try to minimize. Those, I would say, are probably more challenging, versus when you have a much older painting that has a lot of patterning and a lot of texture and the medium allows your eye to be somewhat distracted. It’s just a different type of a challenge,” said Becker.

Because some of the works were done by contemporary artists, The Conservation Center worked with those artists in restoring particular works of art.

“In some cases, we even collaborated with them to treat the pieces,” she said.

Despite the many pieces that were restored, many valuable pieces were total losses.

“There were definitely pieces which were beyond repair and there were some pieces that could be treated but had such severe damage that the outcome would not be as promising,” Becker said.

Becker noted the importance of getting on scene quickly, insightful decision-making and proceeding with recovery plans. She said swift action can curtail further damage.

“For example, there were certain locations where we got access as soon as it was possible and we were able to have a very positive impact, whereas other places that maybe didn’t get in and weren’t able to respond whether it was because of safety issues or whether there wasn’t available resources to certain people. Unfortunately those outcomes were, in some cases, more severe,” Becker said. “It is a reminder of if you can respond swiftly to these very challenging situations and have a plan in place related to who’s going to respond, who can help in relationship to whatever the scenario is, sometimes the outcomes can be much more positive.”

Guerrini-Maraldi offered the reminder that while the catastrophic damage from Sandy cost the insurance market, it’s the reason it exists.

“If the world was free from risk we would be out of business. The wind will always blow, the earth will continue to shake and our clients will look to us in their hour of need,” Guerrini-Maraldi said.

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