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The Fine Points of Artwork Claims

A good conservator can tell what can be saved, what it will cost and what pre-loss conditions factor in to the damage assessment.

March 04, 2011 Photo
In 2008, floods in the Midwest deluged Cedar Rapids, Iowa, submerging nine square miles of the city. The river swelled more than 32 feet and swamped the first floor exhibits of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, where approximately a thousand traditional garments were found caked together in a large pile of putrid, black mud. Elsewhere in the city, the Veterans Memorial Museum suffered enough sewage contamination that work crews were not allowed inside for an additional week and a half after the event. By that time, there was active mold growth on the first floor, and the second floor's stored collections were deteriorating under the humidity from standing water.

In 2005, floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina washed over a famous English mid-1880s carved-wood sideboard that was awaiting shipment in a New Orleans warehouse. As a result, the animal glues that held the carved pieces together became ripe for mold, and the delicately incised details stood in danger of rotting away entirely. More recently, wildfires menaced Southern California, where flames licked at the perimeters of private homes containing collections of modern masters, such as Picasso, Calder, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Botero, and Matisse.

Thanks, though, to a crew of art experts that was assembled to deal with the damage, the artwork in all of these venues was saved. Such a team of disaster response professionals is often composed of some combination of specialists: conservators from an art conservation laboratory; an independent adjuster who specializes in fine art losses; a certified fine art appraiser or specialty contents evaluation service; and a fine art transportation company. The appraiser or contents expert knows how damaged items should be prioritized based on value and historic significance, while the conservation laboratory has the professional knowledge and equipment to restore and repair them. The art handlers can safely move the pieces between the site and the lab, and the adjuster's experience ensures the smooth navigation of an art claim's unique concerns.

Preparation and Triage at the Site
Prior to the arrival of specialists, the insurer has to undertake various tasks, including scheduling transportation for the response team as well as readying the site for the team's arrival. Each site requires different preparations, but foremost among concerns are accessibility and security. Conservators require space to set up their equipment and examine and treat artwork, and they must be able to remove objects from the site. Moreover, the objects must remain secure and protected throughout the duration of the disaster recovery period. Sometimes special preparations are needed, such as obtaining appropriate permits and badges to access certain regions of a disaster zone. The credentials required for the specialists to work at the disaster site should be obtained before their arrival, thus ensuring their immediate access to the site and the damaged artwork. These preliminary duties frequently fall to the insurer, costs and all.
In most scenarios, once the team's work is underway, the art conservators will play a decisive role. Trained conservators can determine which items can be saved and which are beyond repair. They can also identify the various levels of treatments possible, from minimal to complete, and explain the distinctions in appearance, stability and cost between the different options. A conservator also has the ability to assess what damage was the result of the disaster, elements of its pre-loss state, and what pre-loss conditions were exacerbated by the incident. A qualified conservator will offer different proposals to deal with the loss-related damages and to address the pre-loss condition. After the restoration is complete, the conservator is also in the best position to give advice on how to maintain the integrity of the piece.

In some cases, such as with the California wildfires, a conservator can deem that the artwork is safest in situ and can create clean rooms within the building to treat the objects. Other times, there will be an immediate response on-site, with further treatment completed at the laboratory. Each decision is predicated on the condition, stability and material composition of the artwork involved. Even transportation and storage can be a deciding factor in the survival of damaged pieces, given that improper crating can create physical strain or deformations, temperature and humidity fluctuations can worsen conditions, and poor management can cause the loss of a piece entirely.

All that said, even the most qualified experts are of limited use when they cannot respond promptly to the disaster. Companies and individuals that specialize in disaster response have the advantage here, as they will be equipped and prepared from the beginning. However, other factors must be taken into account with each claim. If an insurer has a preferred conservation company but it is located far from the new claim, a decision must be made for the sake of the artwork involved. Perhaps an experienced emergency mitigation contractor could manage the initial stages with conservator input until the professionals arrive on the scene. These decisions should not be made while the art suffers; a choice made in haste and out of need, rather than research, might not be the best option available for the artwork in the insurer's care.

Planning might seem like an overwhelming task, but even simple steps can diminish the damage and speed the recovery process. A comprehensive list of every piece of art in a residential or commercial collection—complete with location, description, size and value—will give the art team a blueprint to follow during the recovery and will minimize time wasted searching through debris. Knowledge of the collection also benefits the conservators in their corralling of supplies and people.
The Conservator's Limited Role
Any dependable conservator working in this country is a member of the governing body of their industry, the AIC (American Institute for Conservation), which upholds strict principles for the practice of ethical conservation. Core fundamentals include employing reversible treatments and adhering to the intent of the artist. A conservator's goal is to stabilize the artwork while remaining as invisible as possible. In addition, there are other ethical tenets of the field: Conservators cannot perform appraisals on their own projects, as it constitutes a conflict of interest; pricing is based on the provision of service, not the estimated value of the piece; and conservators are specialists trained in one medium, such as paintings, and should not work outside their expertise. With this last rule, the value of hiring a conservation company that offers services in multiple disciplines becomes apparent.

Perhaps the most important lesson regarding an art collection struck by disaster is not to dismiss any piece as a loss offhand without consulting a professional. When it seems that the destruction is total, the conservator may identify the possibilities for renewal. In the case of the Iowa museum's garments, the Katrina sideboard, and the California wildfire modern art, the damage that water and fire wreaked, training and perseverance restored.

Summer Street is vice president for Business Development at The Conservation Center. Contributions were also made by Conservation Intern Kate Aguirre. www.theconservationcenter.com
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