There was one overwhelming feeling on the streets of New York’s Chelsea art district shortly after Superstorm Sandy: shock.
“People were just absolutely flabbergasted,” says Christiane Fischer, CEO of AXA Art Insurance Corp. “No one had seen anything like this.”
Sandy sent a massive storm surge into many of the hundreds of art galleries in this area along the Hudson River just south of the Lincoln Tunnel. The storm also caused some wind damage and knocked out power.
Some galleries lost thousands of artworks.
“You saw people pulling art from the basements,” says Fischer, who was in the district two days after Sandy barreled through the Northeast late Oct. 29. “You could hear the generators, see people crying, and smell the petroleum.”
AXA Art insures more than $1 billion in art in Chelsea. It expects to record a loss of about $40 million. The insurer covers inventory and reference libraries, not property.
Luckily, says Fischer, AXA’s lower-Manhattan office never lost power and the company immediately started helping clients—setting up a controlled triage in a rented storage space.
“We got everything out of the galleries as quickly and carefully as we could,” she says. “Then we separated it: not damaged, total losses, restorable.”
Fischer’s position on the board of the Conservation Center in Chicago immediately came in handy. After hearing about the storm, the center contacted Fischer and asked how they could help. The center sent personnel and trucks.
Damage was different gallery-to-gallery, Fischer says. On one street a gallery lost several hundred artworks while another gallery across the street didn’t get any water inside.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, AXA Art thought to develop a disaster prevention action—an email blast and/or call to galleries to do everything possible to move artwork out of harm’s way.
“They did what they could. Some said they moved art 3 feet up, but water came in 6 feet, if not higher,” Fischer says.
Though Fischer credits the actions of gallery owners for keeping losses down, post-Sandy AXA Art will look more at a gallery’s storage and emergency plans. The insurer might exclude sub-level storage and require a promise to move pieces to higher ground.
“Our underwriters will take this disaster under consideration,” she says. “This was a whole new level of a disaster.”
Compensation for the artwork varies, according to the policy language. Some galleries may own the work and therefore, it gets the insurance payment.
With some policies, payment goes directly to the artist, Fischer explains. Other policies split payment between the gallery owner and artist based on a valuation of the selling price. This policy basically reimburses a gallery owner a percentage of the profit that wasn’t earned from the artwork.
Many galleries, Fischer says, were “fully uninsured or very underinsured,” but the underinsured portion can be explained by the fact Sandy was an unprecedented event for the district.
AXA Art will also be determining whether the price to repair a piece exceeds its value after repair.
Fischer says some galleries have already reopened—the ones that are on better financial footing who can pay to get it done. Others are struggling, she says. They cannot handle initial out-of-pocket expenses and many don’t have flood insurance.