Filed Under:Markets, E&S/Specialty

Handling high-value fine art claims

When Norman Rockwell’s
When Norman Rockwell’s "Boy Asleep with Hoe" was stolen, a minor indentation on the canvas made it easy to identify. (Photo courtesy of Chubb)

More than 40 years ago, Norman Rockwell’s Boy Asleep with Hoe, also known as Lazy Bones or Taking a Break, was stolen from a home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and the family submitted a claim to their insurer.

In March 2017, the FBI announced that the painting was recovered. (One reason it was quickly identified was that the piece still had a minor indentation from the owner’s pool cue.) In a ceremony in Philadelphia, the painting was returned to the family by the FBI and is currently slated for auction at an estimated value of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 – significantly more than the value of the artwork when the claim was made in 1976.

For adjusters, involvement with these types of high-value — and high-profile — claims can be unusual. However, when they do occur, it is important to be well-equipped with the right information and skills to handle them effectively. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

Time is of the essence

Causes of fine art claims vary but they are often accidental such as damage during transport. The financial consequences for clients can be devastating if damages are not reported and addressed in a timely manner, so respond as quickly as possible to avoid further damage.

Find out when the loss or damage occurred, and determine the source such as a burst water pipe, fire or accidental breakage. Sometimes, the longer the art is left in a damaged state, the more difficult it is to successfully restore.

Also speak with the client about the condition of the piece prior to damage. Ideally, the client should have details such as the artist, title, date, acquisition information and photographs depicting the artwork’s original state, as well as any identifying marks like the pool-cue hole in Boy Asleep with Hoe. A detailed item description can help expedite the claim process. 

art restorer working on a painting

Finding the right conservator can preserve a work of art and save an insurer from an escalating claim. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Handle with (expert) care

Upon assessment, connect with a conservator who specializes in the artwork’s genre—for example, contemporary paintings, old masters or even outdoor sculpture. To help identify the right resources, organizations including the American Institute for Conservation can provide contact information for professionals, along with areas of specialization and expertise. Look for a “Professional Associate” or “Fellow” designation to find members who have gone through a peer review process. 

After identifying the right conservator, the damaged art will probably need to be transported for further examination and treatment. Hire professionals who are well-trained in the packing, shipping and handling of fine art, especially since transportation is a leading cause of fine art claims (or can further exacerbate the claim). Ensure that they inspect the artwork and complete a condition report prior to packing; use materials appropriate for the size, weight and fragility of the piece; and have climate-controlled and air ride systems to reduce the risk of further damage while en route.

The conservator will further examine the artwork and develop a treatment plan to address damages. If the work was created after 1990 and the artist is still alive, the artist should be consulted on damage and proposed treatment. Per guidelines in the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), artists have the right to renounce works that have been distorted, mutilated or modified to an extent that would be prejudicial to their reputation. To protect clients, confirm that the artist approves of the treatment approach. If the artist is no longer alive, the conservator may consult with the artist’s estate.

Depending on the extent of damage, treatment can be a long process. Conservators may need to test various treatment options and work slowly to monitor a work’s reaction. An appraiser should be consulted during or following treatment to evaluate any loss in value resulting from the claim. Work with an appraiser who specializes in the type of art under review, and has expertise in completing damage and loss appraisals. The Appraisers Association of America, the American Society of Appraisers, and the International Society of Appraisers can provide contact information for professional appraiser members throughout the country.

For adjusters, knowing how to move quickly and get a piece into the hands of experts can be the difference between restoring a million-dollar piece and a total loss. Are you prepared?

Laura Doyle ( vice president, collections manager at Chubb.

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