Emergency Response to Fine Art and Furniture Damage: Lessons Learned from the California Wildfires

The Southern California wildfires in the Fall of 2007 were some of the most devastating in terms of loss of homes and personal property. While Katrina taught us lessons in dealing with damage from water, humidity and mold- the fire, heat and smoke damage from the wildfires provide an alternative set of risk management lessons. In our work with fine art and furniture restoration, The Chicago Conservation Center has responded to many crises such as the LaSalle Bank fire, Hurricane Katrina, and now the Southern California wildfires.

Vice President April Hann and The Chicago Conservation Center’s Disaster Response Team have spent recent weeks in Southern California, surveying the damage and administering on-site treatments for our clients. We have found that a proactive approach can be the answer to maximizing recovery and reducing costs. Emergency planning and execution by a skilled and knowledgeable disaster response team consisting of professional conservation experts is vital: triage and on-site treatment, as well as establishing pre- and post loss assessments, are employable methods that can mean the difference between recuperation and reparation.

What should an art collector do in order to minimize loss in the event of a disaster? April Hann explains that preparedness by the collector is key: one should always have as much documentation as possible so that conservators, restoration and insurance personnel have the information necessary to make determinations about your collection. The following information should always be maintained by the collector and stored in a safe, off-site location:

  • Insurance policy information

  • Collection inventory

  • Colection appraisals

  • Photo documentation

  • Disaster plan

  • List of experts “on call” (this list should include broker, insurance agent, professional art conservators, art shippers/handlers, curator and/or appraiser).

Another aspect of preparedness is a collection survey. Executed by a professional conservator, a collection survey is an excellent tool to protect, as well as enhance,one’s art collection. A collection survey should consist of the following:

  • On-site review- examination of each item in the collection.

  • Condition report for each item- a written assessment of the condition of each item. Treatment recommendations- an evaluation of treatments necessary to both conserve and maintain your collection.

  • Priority listings and timeline- a listing of what collection issues should be approached first, in order of priority.

A pro-active approach in the care of one’s collection can help ensure the greatest recuperation after a disaster such as the California wildfires, as well as extend the life and value of one’s collection.