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When art museums and galleries shut their doors for an indefinite period, many common risks are amplified or altered, and the existing protection schemes may need to be adjusted. Jennifer Schipf, AXA XL’s Global Practice Leader-Art, outlines some of the ways museums and galleries can protect their collections during this period.

With daily operations suspended by the ongoing COVID-19 emergency, museum administrators and gallery owners are confronting a new set of pressing challenges: ensuring employees’ health and safety, financial and business-continuity issues, and protecting art and/or artifacts. This article focuses on the last item. Our long experience of insuring high-value art and artifacts in diverse settings shows that some common risks are either amplified or altered when the doors to fine-art collections are shuttered for an extended period. Below, we highlight some of these issues and outline the steps museum administrators and gallery owners can take to minimize or mitigate the risks involved.

Harden the target

Threat assessments focus on two critical variables: the value or attractiveness of the art and artifacts and the risks associated with stealing them.

Economic headwinds notwithstanding, the impact of the current pandemic on valuations is likely to be minimal. COVID-19 isn’t going to make great art less attractive, including to would-be thieves.

The degree of difficulty involved in making off with artwork and artifacts, on the other hand, could be lessened currently. Museums and galleries are now closed for an undetermined period; in addition to there being no visitors on the premises, there may also be fewer colleagues on site. Likewise, art storage facilities may be working with reduced staff. And police forces have more pressing priorities at the moment – and rightly so. Art thieves are nothing if not opportunistic, and in the current environment, the opportunities may look even more tempting.

Therefore, during this period of suspended operations, when staff may be preoccupied with other concerns, museum administrators and gallery owners are strongly encouraged to review their overall security schemes to identify potential weak points offering openings for opportunistic thieves. AXA XL Risk Consulting can support such assessments. We have many capabilities for collecting information and proposing recommendations remotely; even when physical surveys aren’t possible, art loss prevention never stops.

Some practical considerations

The following guidance concerning physical security is intended as a starting point for maintaining a high level of protection during the COVID-19 emergency. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, and the relative priority of different responses will necessarily vary depending on a museum’s/gallery’s location, existing protection systems and processes, and related factors.

  • Secure all access/entry points

    This may seem obvious but bears repeating: Doors, windows, ventilation systems, skylights and the like all represent potential vulnerabilities. While a facility’s entry points almost certainly are already secured, the mechanisms/systems in place may be predicated on the notion that people will always or almost always be around, and/or that common entry points will be monitored continuously. In other words, under “normal” circumstances, there just wouldn’t be enough time for thieves to breach the security measures before being spotted. However, in these “abnormal” times when no one is around and monitoring may be more sporadic, some access points might need to be hardened. Also, consider the potential for gaining entry via neighboring premises. Since they are most likely also shutdown, neighbors whose security measures are less robust could offer attractive stepping-stones into museums and galleries.

  • Check the interior security

    Here, again, time is the critical variable. Once someone gains access and is inside, they could now have more time to snatch something before a response is initiated. If current physical obstacles aren’t enough to delay access to a target, consider reinforcing the security of the hanging hardware. Also, whenever possible, high-value objects – particularly those that are small and easy to remove – should be moved into strong rooms or similarly secure locked spaces, according to what is available.

  • Be sure that responses are given to all triggered alarms

    Review the contractual agreements with security companies to confirm when triggered alarms will, and, more importantly, won’t generate onsite responses. Discussions also should be conducted with any security company to verify it is still operating at full capacity and, if not, what impacts that could have on its usual response times. We also recommend that site interventions be initiated immediately whenever an interruption in the alarm transmission line can’t be settled within two minutes.

  • Ensure that adequate electricity is available

    Alarm and temperature/humidity control systems require a continuous supply of electricity. If power outages are possible/likely, backup generators that can be activated immediately are essential. Also, if a facility is protected by sprinklers, any impairments to its fire protection system during the closure must be avoided, and its water supply should be secured.

  • Check the conservation period for CCTV footage

    With shuttered operations, it is possible that a breach wouldn’t be discovered for a long time. Accordingly, it is essential that the CCTV system has enough storage capacity to retain recordings of the premises for as long as permitted under local laws.

  • Consider additional security, such as regular patrols at irregular times

    Empty streets open up new opportunities for vandals and thieves. Consider organizing exterior patrols to check the integrity of potential access points. This could be especially relevant in rural areas, where expected response times are longer.

  • Monitor extreme weather events
    Nature hasn’t been suspended; hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes and the like are continuing threats, even as this coronavirus spreads across the world. In areas exposed to natural catastrophes, museum administrators and gallery owners should check to ensure that existing recovery plans can still be implemented efficiently and in a timely manner following extreme weather events. Also, all weather monitoring and detection systems, e.g. water detection devices, should be checked to ensure they are activated and fully functioning.


Other locations and transit risks

Art and artifacts that are currently “outside the house” – e.g. on loan to other museums, on consignment with other galleries, in the custody of conservators or restorers, or in fine art warehouses – may need to stay put for a while. If that is the case, be sure to understand what steps those other entities are taking to safeguard these objects during this crisis.

Also, the risks to art and artifacts typically are much greater when the objects are in transit. Moreover, many of the standard risk management procedures followed by fine-art packers and shippers may not be feasible currently. For example, shippers often require that at least two couriers accompany all transits. Travel restrictions in place today could make that impossible, especially since transporting art is not viewed as an “essential” activity. Similarly, with so many flights grounded right now, sea transit may be the only option; the risks here are completely different. Therefore if artworks need to be transported right away, be sure to speak with the packer/shipper about the measures being taken to uphold high-security standards during this time.

So, whether the issue is artworks temporarily housed elsewhere or in transit, AXA XL’s art experts and Risk Consultants can help clients understand how their collections could be threatened by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the steps they can take to minimize and mitigate these hazards.

Like many people in the art world, I’m apprehensive about the economic implications of this crisis as well as the impact of social distancing on our need to appreciate art. I also miss the social side of the business – the art fairs, gallery events, blockbuster museum exhibitions – all of which are on hold for now. At the same time, the art lives on. And the solace, inspiration and hope that we individually and intimately draw from art are perhaps more important now than ever.

Finally, our need for artistic expression is eternal, and some of our clients are finding unique and wonderful ways to make their collections accessible to the public via online events. AXA XL’s Art team salutes their ingenuity and is committed to helping museums and galleries protect precious artwork for healthy exhibition in the future.

About the author: Jennifer is AXA XL’s Global Practice Leader for Art. She has a BA in art history and economics from Georgetown University and a BS in interior architecture from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In her current role, Jennifer is responsible for setting worldwide strategy for client solutions, Underwriting guidelines and ultimate profitability. She’s been dedicated to the specialized fine art underwriting market for nearly twenty years and recently helped establish the AXA Art Prize. Jennifer is based in New York and can be reached at jennifer.schipf@axaxl.com
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