A Passion to Protect: the issue that unites all collectors
How do you define a collector? As a single-minded acquirer of niche artefacts? An aesthetic connoisseur of rarefied beauty? Or a dispassionate student of investment values? Maybe even a mixture of all three?
In truth, there are probably as many different types of collectors as there are personality types.
But, typically, they fall into broad three categories: the “passionates” - informed amateurs, who frequent museums, galleries and fairs in the process of assembling their collection; the “traditionalists” - who have inherited a tradition of collecting, and who acquire selectively, largely going by instinct; and “investors” -who keenly follow trends and see art primarily as a commercial commodity.
In every case, the relationship between collector and collectible is very different – but there are always numerous risks that could threaten their precious assets.
A conversation with a collector can elicit some surprising revelations.
I remember a collector of Old Masters being stunned when I discovered a large paint chip on the surface of a 16th-century oil-on-panel. The chip was probably the result of accidental damage sustained during building work some time ago that had gone unnoticed ever since.
I can also recall a modern-art lover explaining in heartbroken tones how, on arriving home one evening, he discovered one of the major works in his collection – a Surrealist-period Miró – had fallen from a loose nail on to a bronze sculpture directly below, sustaining a tear of several centimetres.
And I can still hear the distraught voice of the collector who phoned me one morning to explain how he’d fallen down the stairs of his home smashing into smithereens a superb 5Th Century BC Attic oenochoe wine jug housed in a glass showcase that did not withstand the shock of impact.
Après le Déluge
I can’t say it enough – anything can happen.
One of the most beautiful paperwork collections I have ever seen was entirely ruined by a 600-litre flood from two upper-floor water heaters, which were punctured when their fixings broke.
Less spectacular, but much more prevalent, is the everyday havoc that can be wrought by the humble loose seal, leaky plumbing or damaged roof a floor or two up.
I will never forget the extensive damage caused to a remarkable Pierre Soulages walnut stain and a tar-on-Japanese-paper work by Richard Serra by a long-term build-up of humidity behind their display wall.
And best not to dwell on the state of one inconsolable bibliophile, whose manuscripts and books were destroyed after water permeated the wooden floor of his library.
Of course, it isn’t just water that can damage works of art.
One collector I knew lost a large proportion of his artworks when a fire broke out in a secure facility where they were being stored.
And ironically, another collector suffered a damaging flood caused by the run-off water from hoses being used to tackle a fire on the floor above.
Crime and punishment
Theft is, of course, another big risk for art collectors.
Indeed, the world’s biggest art heist remains unsolved – some 29 years after the event. In March 1990, armed robbers dressed as police officers, entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston in the early hours of the morning.
The robbers handcuffed the two on-duty security guards and then proceeded to steal 13 works of art, including Rembrandt’s only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galillee,” as well as works by Vermeer and Degas, among others. At today’s prices, the combined value of the stolen works tops $500 million.
Despite an international investigation, and the doubling of the reward offered by the museum – to $10 million -for information leading to the return of the artworks, the crime remains unsolved and the artworks’ frames hang empty on the museum’s walls.
Some of the stories we hear would stretch credulity were they a movie plot; robbers climbing building facades, staging elaborate frauds, or simply employing brute force.
In short, thieves will look to exploit any flaw or weakness in your security precautions. But the good news is that it normally doesn’t take excessive measures to repel them.
Works of art are valuable both financially and sentimentally, so protecting them is enormously important.
Insurers can work with collectors to help them put risk management measures into place. For example, artworks can be installed under the watchful eye of a professional handler to ensure they are securely affixed to the wall – or wherever they are displayed.
Motion sensors and alarms can help to reduce the risk of theft, while smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and fire extinguishers can help reduce the risk of fire damage.
Of course, all of these measures are tailored to the nature of the works and the conditions in which they are displayed.
When art is being transported, care must be taken to ensure that it is being kept at the correct temperature and in appropriate light and humidity conditions, for example.
The collector’s soul
Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes “good” art; as the saying goes “I know what I like.”
But one thing I have learned over my time in this industry is that there are collectors of even the most esoteric of sub-genres.
When we see something we do like, when we fall under its spell – for whatever reason -we gain a fascinating insight into the soul of the collector.
And while a collector is consumed by the passion to own and cherish these extraordinary objects, it is my job as an underwriter to help them find ways to protect those objects from the varied and serious threats that might befall them.