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Attacks on artworks raise risk management, insurance concerns


Recent protests in Europe by climate activists targeting high-value artworks are raising concerns among museums, lenders and their insurers.

Museums should expect greater scrutiny of their security procedures, but it is too soon to say if the attacks will drive up prices in the fine art insurance market, experts say.

Last week, a court in the Netherlands handed prison sentences to two protesters who had attempted to glue themselves to the Johannes Vermeer painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring” at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague on Oct. 27. 

In an incident on Oct. 22, mashed potatoes were thrown at “Haystacks,” a painting by Claude Monet, at the Barberini museum in Potsdam, Germany, while activists threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Fifteen Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London on Oct. 14.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre Museum in Paris, which is protected by bulletproof glass and can only be viewed from a distance, was smeared in cake in another incident in May.

In a Nov. 3 statement responding to the attacks, the New York-based Association of Art Museums and Directors said such protests are “misdirected.”

Recent attacks have focused on very high-profile, high-value pieces, said Rachel Myrtle, director, specie and fine art, at Aon PLC in London.  

But the artworks selected are protected by glass or plexiglass and are being carefully chosen “to ensure that there is some risk mitigation, even in the process of the protest itself,” Ms. Myrtle said.

If one of the pieces was damaged, such as if mashed potatoes were smeared on the surface of the canvas, “that would be another level of criminal damage,” she said.

Some of the pieces of artwork that have been targeted are part of national collections, which often are covered by government indemnity schemes, rather than by commercial insurance, she said.

It’s not the first time that artwork has been vandalized, said Patrick Drummond, Chicago-based head of fine art for the Americas, at Axa XL, a unit of Axa SA. “The shift here is that we’re now seeing activism,” where artwork is being attacked “to promote a cause,” he said.

“Vandalism, destruction of the artwork is something that is considered a covered peril,” but there must be physical damage for there to be a valid claim, Mr. Drummond said.

Museums, risk managers and insurers must evaluate changing exposures in art risk, Mr. Drummond said. If these types of attacks were to accelerate in frequency, there could be a pricing impact, he said.

Insurers and lenders are likely to ask more questions around security procedures, and about how museums plan to manage these potential attacks, said Christian Bell, executive director, specie and fine art, at Aon PLC in London.

Commercial insurance would typically respond by paying for the cost of restoration and for depreciation in value of artwork, subject to individual policy terms, Mr. Bell said.

However, a billionaire who lends his or her painting to a national exhibition is likely to be looking for coverage for full restoration and full depreciation whereas in the case of a museum’s own collection, they typically have experts in-house who would restore the work, he said.

Clients that lend high-value artwork to museums are asking lots of questions, said Mary Pontillo, national fine art practice leader at Risk Strategies Co., who is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Risk management advice would include having artwork glazed or put under UV plexiglass, “but it’s a balancing act between protecting the artwork and enabling full aesthetic experience of the piece,” Ms. Pontillo said.

Alarm systems that alert a guard in a gallery if a visitor has crossed a line on the floor are also recommended, she said. Another consideration is to have several guards in each gallery, though that can be costly, she said.

Closed-off wings where only a few people at a time are allowed into an area and added security checks for access to high-end items are possible, but most museums don’t have the “bandwidth” to make those changes, said Philip Sunderland, New York-based assistant vice president, private client services, fine art, jewelers block at EPIC Insurance Brokers.

The pieces targeted in recent attacks appear to have been able to be conserved to their original condition very quickly, without any loss in value, Mr. Sunderland said.

“Until something happens where it’s a total loss of a $50 million or $100 million piece,” there’s unlikely to be a market impact, he said.