How to Protect Your Art

Last month, Norwegian industrialist Christian Mustad discovered that the unsigned Van Gogh-style painting he had left languishing in his attic because he believed it was a fake, was in fact the genuine article. He was lucky. Not only because he found himself to be the owner of an internationally important masterpiece but also because that masterpiece hadn’t been damaged during its long banishment.


Mustad is a collector so presumably he knows a thing or two about storing paintings (key points as follows: ensure the storage room has stable atmospheric conditions, remove all fixings, stack framed works back-to--back and unframed ones face-to-face, use pads to protect the base and corners and invest in a storage rack) but had the picture been harmed or stolen, he would have been in trouble. As Tom Sargent, Client Manager of Aon Private Client’s art team says, ‘the most fundamental question to ask [when buying art works] is what settlement will be made in the event of a loss.’

Inadequate insurance is a common problem. Standard insurance policies not only tend to have low single article limits, they also disregard any depreciation following partial loss. For example, if a painting valued at £100,000 is damaged, incurring restoration costs of £1,000 and subsequent depreciation of £10,000, a standard policy will only pay for repair. A comprehensive policy that accommodates fine art and antiques, on the other hand, would also settle for the depreciation. ‘There is a significant difference between insurers that understand the nature of art and insurers that deal in mass market products,’ says Sargent. ‘Trying to explain to a standard insurer the impact a hair line crack has on the value of a Song Dynasty bowl is a hard task.’

Of course, avoiding damage in the first place is the best policy of all and while it’s impossible to protect against every eventuality, there are some simple steps collectors can take to reduce the possibility of harm. The most important of these is to display art works appropriately. Ideally, paintings should be hung from brass chains attached to two hooked plates screwed into both sides of the frame back and since fluctuations in temperature cause the most damage, all works from oil paintings and bronze sculptures to ceramics and art glass must be kept at a consistent temperature away from direct heat and light. Try not to hang paintings in high traffic areas of the house such as stairways and always steer clear of the spaces behind doors.

Cleaning requires care. If you must dust your paintings (if the paint is flaky don’t), always place them on a cushioned surface and lean them towards you so that the dust falls forwards. Then, using an artist’s brush, move slowly and gently across the surface. Bronze pieces should be dusted with a soft cloth or, when necessary, sponged with neutral soap and water, while glass and ceramics are best wiped with a damp cloth. Never soak ceramics as the clay can absorb water.

Damage is often environmental so it’s advisable to examine your art works on a regular basis. For example, check canvases for areas of buckling or discolouration which may be indications that damp is seeping in (if so, remove the painting immediately) and inspect the hanging arrangements for signs of wear. Frayed picture wires, stretched chains or loose plates can all be replaced at home but damage to the works themselves should always be dealt with by a conservator.

Thankfully, theft is pretty rare but it’s essential that you are properly protected. Object ID, an international standard for describing cultural objects, recommends that collectors photograph their art works and write a detailed description of each piece. These documents should be kept in a safe box along with the bill of sale, artist’s statement and a letter of authenticity – all of which should be obtained at the time of purchase.
But the right policy, correct display and meticulous care will count for nothing if, should the worst happen, you find that your art works are undervalued. ‘With prices rising and fluctuating so frequently, we recommend that our clients get valuations carried out every three to five years,’ says Tom Sargent. It’s sound advice.

Photo by A Silent Republic via Flickr Creative Commons