Date: Feb 27 2020
The world watched in disbelief last spring as fire ripped through the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. The spire and roof were destroyed, but the structure’s stone ceiling contained the collapsing roof, sparing the interior from total destruction. Despite the catastrophic circumstances, an astounding 90% of the irreplaceable works of art within the cathedral were saved due to a thoughtful and seamlessly executed emergency plan.
You might think that only institutions like the cathedral need art-focused emergency plans, but not so. In my role as an art advisor for a major insurer, I have assisted numerous private collectors in the aftermath of fires and natural disasters, and witnessed extraordinary differences in both the financial and sentimental impact based on a collector’s level of preparedness.
An emergency plan for a collection need not be complicated. The basic components include:
- Assigning responsibilities;
- Identifying service providers and familiarizing them with the property; and
- Documenting protocols.
The following recommendations are intended to help responsible parties organize the tasks involved with creating a customized collection-specific emergency plan. Begin the process by considering the perils specific to the collection, from natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, to man-made scenarios like accidents and mechanical breakdowns. Next, work to eliminate any existing hazards that could limit the severity of a disaster or avoid one entirely. Finally, identify resources, task owners, and document the plan.
- Install one monitored smoke detector for every 1,000 square feet; and in any room where valuables are concentrated.
- Place fire extinguishers in easy-to-access locations and train staff on their use.
- Store flammables such as gas, paint, or solvents, in fire-resistant cabinets or containers.
- Install moisture alarm sensors near water sources and cooling mechanicals.
- Elevate all non-installed artwork at least 6 inches above the ground.
- Ensure the street address is visible and record alternate access routes in case the primary road is impassible. If the property is gated, have the fire department install a Knox box and be sure electric gates have manual opening options.
- Develop a home layout plan that records locations of water, gas and electrical-shut-offs; and train family and staff on usage.
- In wildfire areas, maintain at least 50 feet of defensible space by regularly clearing gutters, trimming branches away from roofs, storing wood away from structures, and removing combustible landscaping. Enclose eaves, bird-stops, and open areas under decks; install ember-resistant venting, and replace plastic or single-paned skylights with fire-rated materials.
- In seismic zones, install pictures using earthquake-mitigation hooks, affix breakables with museum wax, and secure sculpture on pedestals to floors. Anchor top-heavy furniture to walls and ensure cabinet doors remain latched at all times. Identify and record the location of the home’s seismic shut-off gas valve.
- In hurricane regions, designate a safe storage area such as a fire and water resistant vault or a room above the first floor with no exterior exposure. Prepare plans to protect immovable outdoor artwork during severe weather. Ensure that the back-up generator can run critical systems for at least two weeks. Consider relocating the collection to a storage facility if the home will be vacant during hurricane season or if the generator is inadequate.
- In high rise buildings, consider empowering the building’s staff to handle art in an emergency as they might be the first line of defense. Record elevator dimensions and any items that require rigging. Learn the building requirements for Certificates of Insurance and consider having an arrangement with the art handler to allow certificates to remain on file. Determine regular and off-hours access regulations, record emergency contact details for the superintendent, and review the plans with building management.
- Decide who is responsible for implementing the plan and create an emergency contact list with the team lead’s information at the top. The coordinator should live in close proximity to the collection.
- Inventory the collection. The format can range from a simple spreadsheet to a sophisticated digital database, but should minimally include descriptions, dimensions, images, provenance, and physical locations. If the inventory is not stored in the cloud, keep a hard copy in a water and fire resistant file cabinet or safe, with a duplicate stored off-site.
- Create a priority removal list of items for first responders that includes images, locations and handling instructions. Factors impacting priority might include value, sentimentality, or fragility.
- Maintain current insurance values by scheduling regular updates.
- Establish relationships with local art handling firms, and familiarize them with the home and collection. Resources may be scarce during a catastrophe, so consider preparing a Letter of Understanding or service contract to ensure they will be available as needed.
- The art handling firm may also provide short term storage for evacuation and triage. Confirm that the facility has environmental controls, power backup, its own emergency plan, and is not located in a flood zone. Identify a backup storage solution outside of the immediate area in the event local resources cannot respond.
- The risk of damage to art increases whenever it is moved, so consult with art handlers to establish criteria for determining when it would be safer to triage art at home or evacuate it. Learn how to properly shelter art in place by identifying internal locations for storage.
- Establish relationships with local conservators who are experienced in disaster response for each genre in the collection. Have them examine the collection and provide triage instructions so that each item can be quickly assessed and stabilized if damaged.
- Round out the response team with contract registrars, security personnel, and general contents appraisers.
- Have tools and packing materials on hand in case evacuating the collection is necessary and store crates for the most important works on site for quick removal.
- The contact list, home plan, and priority removal list will be the basis of the emergency plan. Place copies and updates in easily accessible locations, and distribute them to family, staff and others tasked with execution.
- Regularly test the plan to help ensure participants are aware of roles and responsibilities. The more contingencies anticipated the better. Reassess the plan annually to ensure roles and contact information are up-to-date.
- During an emergency conditions may change rapidly, so emergency services and media should be frequently monitored and official evacuation directives adhered to; personal safety is paramount.
- If moving the collection appears necessary in the advance of a storm, contact art handlers; transporting valuables in personal vehicles is discouraged. If art will stay in the home, move it away from areas at risk for water intrusion.
- If a wildfire is approaching, it may already be too late to remove the collection; focus instead on securing the building envelope to prevent flying embers and smoke from entering. Close all exterior doors, windows, vents and flues, and cover art, furniture and rugs with fabric sheets to reduce damage from soot residue.
- As soon as it is safe, activate the plan by contacting the emergency response team leader, assess the damage, and implement measures to protect the collection from further impact.
- Provide a copy of the priority removal list to staff and emergency responders, and contact your independent insurance advisor or insurer to start the claims process.
- Consider contacting your designated security provider to protect your assets if there is a power outage or your home’s security is otherwise compromised
- Determine which conservators are needed and contact them to begin the conservation efforts. Some items may need to be immediately stabilized first to prevent further damage or deterioration.
- If the collection must be removed from the residence, contact the designated art handlers. Depending on the type of emergency and number of items damaged, everything might go to one place for triage and inspection, or directly to various conservation studios for treatment.
Proactive planning works
Last summer, an electrical fire ignited in the attic of one of our client’s residences, affording us the unfortunate opportunity to witness the value of emergency planning. The fire was ultimately devastating to the home, but the majority of his beloved collection escaped largely unscathed. This positive result was due in no small part to an efficiently executed emergency plan, coupled with a proactive protective art framing regimen. While it is impossible to predict every catastrophe, it is evident that thorough preparation and response, planning reduces the likelihood of loss and reduces the severity of any damage that does occur.
Rand Silver, Global Director, Art Collection Management, AIG Private Client Group
Rand oversees all aspects of risk management for AIG’s insurance portfolio of art, jewelry, and wine. Working with a team of seasoned professionals, he provides collections related loss prevention services to policyholders, ensures that high-valued claims are handled seamlessly, and implements disaster mitigation and response initiatives.