Does Your Collection Have a Disaster Plan?

Flood Around Building Photo via Cristina Gottardi on UnSplash.

By Kristine Hansen

Although Mother Nature has always demonstrated her own un-wavering path, certain events, based on historical records and weather patterns, are known to be unlikely. Hurricanes won’t flood the Midwest and a tornado likely won’t rock Honolulu.

However, there is always the chance an act of nature will impact your art collection, representing both financial and sentimental loss. From major events like earthquakes, floods and fires, to seemingly innocuous changes like increased humidity over the summer, disaster can strike when you least expect it.

In late October of 2012, during a fairly typical hurricane season, Hurricane Sandy muscled slowly along the Eastern seaboard. What was not typical was the impact of the post-tropical cyclone on October 29: a storm surge that flooded Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, N.Y. Power lines were cut, subway lines shut-down and major streets flooded. At the time, Sandy represented the second-most destructive hurricane on record in the U.S., second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In total, twenty-four states were affected.

“I was living in New York City and working at Christie’s during Hurricane Sandy and the impact on the Chelsea galleries was devastating. I didn’t see the flooding first hand, but heard from gallerist friends and read many articles about how it wiped out their spaces and more importantly, where they stored their inventory,” says Hadley Powell, owner of Powell Fine Art Advisory.

“Hurricane season is serious, especially for clients in Florida or along the eastern seaboard,” Powell says. “It is necessary to have an evacuation plan and work closely with fine art storage companies like Fortress, so that if a storm is coming, you can quickly move your collection into their storm-proofed facilities.”

Hadley Powell

Hadley Powell, owner of Boston-based Powell Fine Art Advisory.

So what steps can you take to prevent significant loss from a natural disaster? Whether you collect paintings, photographs, prints, furnishings or decorative objects, you never want to risk losing or negatively impacting the value of works you hold dear.

Use Fine Art Storage

Yes, it can be a pain to relocate your collection, but if you don’t, you may lose it entirely. While you may never need to use the storage space, it’s yours in an emergency. Many natural disasters allow only two or three days to evacuate, and the last thing you want to be doing during this time is calling around to find a storage space. You’d rather use that time to box up your collection and shuttle it to safety, right?

As Powell mentioned, Fortress Storage—with locations in Boston, New York City and Miami—specializes in fine art storage. The climate-controlled buildings, with temperatures maintained at between 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity levels hovering between 50 and 55 percent, are designed to withstand hurricanes, humidity and extreme heat, all of which can damage artwork. Some clients prefer to store their art and antiques there year-round—not just when hurricane season or the summertime humidity kicks off.

Storage during winter is also becoming increasingly common due to changes in weather patterns over the last few decades. “Hurricane season isn’t the only time to be thinking about disaster planning,” says Powell. “In Boston, we are seeing significant tidal fluctuations, especially during Nor’Easter storms in the winter. I personally helped evacuate a collection that was on the ground floor of a building that was experiencing flooding.”

Are you planning any construction at your gallery, residence or other area you own that currently houses the art or antiques? Or will the building be under construction in the near future? Get ready now. “It is also necessary to have a plan in place during moves or any kind of construction,” says Powell. “The micro dust from construction can find its way into the tiniest crevices and coat the surface of a painting.” In the event this occurs, restoration would be pricey and time-consuming—and the expense avoided entirely if you simply shuttle the works to a safer place during construction.


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Post-Disaster Recording

Should damage occur, the first thing you must do is touch base with your insurer (you do have art insurance, right?) and begin to document specific details about the damage. Where is the damage on the artwork or piece of furniture? How does the object look differently than it did before? Especially if the situation that caused the damage is affecting an entire region, it’s important to have all of your information together before making this call, and eventually filing claims, so the process can run smoothly.

“Any type of damage and subsequent restoration must be taken very seriously. Call your insurance company and update all condition reports to reflect what was done to restore the work,” says Powell.

But even before a disaster there is a lot you can do to prepare. Powell offers this handy checklist for any savvy owner of valuable art or antiques.

Create a Disaster Plan

The best way to navigate a disaster or life-changing event, as any psychologist will say, is to be prepared. Take the time to think through how you will handle it. This way, when under pressure, you have a plan to turn to rather than thinking emotionally in the heat of the moment. A fine art disaster plan can also coax you on how to avoid a disaster altogether. “I put together art disaster plans for my clients as a way of making sure we identify who plays what role in the event of an incident, or to prevent one,” says Powell.

Do you work with a team to curate and take care of your collection? Don’t make this decision alone. “Decide who is responsible for implementing the plan, and create an emergency contact list with the team lead’s information at the top. The coordinator should live in close proximity to the collection,” says Powell.

Inventory Your Collection

If you have a slow time of year, add this new task to your list: inventory your entire collection. Wondering how to set a plan like this up? As with any document you create, there are many mediums to use—including a word-processing template like Microsoft Word or a data-driven document like Microsoft Excel. Powell encourages you to use whatever is most comfortable.

Art Collection

Photo via Lizzie George on UnSplash.

“Format can range from a simple spreadsheet to a sophisticated digital database, but should include descriptions, dimensions, images, provenance and physical locations,” she says. “If the inventory isn’t stored in the cloud, keep a hard copy in a water-and-fire-resistant file cabinet or safe, with a duplicate stored off-site.”

Use the list to guide the steps one would take in the event they need relocating. “Create a priority removal list of items for first responders that includes images, locations and handling instructions,” advises Powell. “Make sure everyone in the household is familiar with this list.” (That last line is important: in a natural disaster, a family could disperse as each person tends to individual needs under a time crunch. Make sure everyone knows what’s on the removal list—not just one person, who may no longer be available.)

Cultivate relationships

Once a hurricane or natural disaster has started creeping towards your region, it’s likely already too late to start researching how you will deal with such an event. As mentioned earlier, take advantage of the slow times in your business or personal life to chart out a plan.

“Establish relationships with local art handling firms, and familiarize them with the home and collection,” says Powell. “During a catastrophe, art handlers and art storage businesses will be busy, so consider preparing a letter of understanding or service contract to ensure they will be available as needed.”

While nobody expects to be the victim of a natural disaster or man-made occurrence (such as a fire), being prepared is the best safety measure you can employ. By employing your disaster plan, you’ll feel more confident you can emerge from the other side of a catastrophe without significant financial or sentimental loss. And perhaps most importantly, by plotting out your plan early, you’ll be making decisions with a clear head while you have the luxury of time to weigh your options, preserving your collection as much as possible under difficult circumstances.

Looking for more about disaster planning and your art collection? Check out our guide to insuring a work of art here.