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Climate change adds wrinkle to art collectors' concerns
Marc Atlan, a creative director in the fashion and perfume industries, at home in Los Angeles with his extensive art collection, Nov. 23, 2019. No longer can art owners just buy a general insurance policy and leave it at that. The threat of more intense storms means collectors need to keep track of their holdings. Alex Welsh/The New York Times.

by Paul Sullivan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Marc Atlan, a creative director in the fashion and perfume industries, moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, with a substantial art collection he amassed in France and has continued to add to it, often to his wife’s chagrin.

But, he admits somewhat sheepishly, he has no idea how many pieces he has. “It’s a vast collection,” he said, adding, “Collecting is a disease.”

Atlan, 52, also lives in a city ripe for natural disasters — from earthquakes to wildfires to mudslides — that could destroy or severely damage his collection.

If being a collector is imbued with the romance of money and taste, then keeping track of all the pieces in a collection is its opposite. Verifying the purchase price and date, the artist’s information, the history of a work is about as romantic as accounting.

But this drudgery is increasingly becoming necessary for high-end collections as climate change makes severe weather worse in the coastal areas where the affluent tend to live.

“As we go into 2020, the days are gone when homeowners needed to just put an insurance policy in place to protect themselves but could then move on,” said Lisa Lindsay, executive director of the nonprofit Private Risk Management Association. “People need to work with someone who can put together a comprehensive plan.”

Adriano Picinati di Torcello, a director with Deloitte Luxembourg who oversees art and finance activities, said the worldwide art collection in private hands is estimated to be worth more than $1.7 trillion. But individual owners have been slower than institutions and companies to catalog what they have.

“It’s really a question of education and awareness,” he said. “People protect very well financial assets and houses. They should have the same view of art collections: to protect them while still enjoying them.”

Contingency plans for collections require starting with the basics: What kind of natural disaster might destroy what you have, or how is it likely to affect them? Lindsay said the biggest challenge is getting collectors to focus on that and to stop assuming their works will be safe.

The Private Risk Management Association polled insurance agents in June and found that 65% said only a tenth of their clients had risk mitigation plans to protect their homes and valuables. Half of those agents said their clients only updated their disaster plans after they’d been affected.

“Climate change is a reality,” Lindsay said. “These severe weather events are going to continue and maybe increase. We need people to understand there’s plenty that can be done.”

A first step is knowing what you have, a task that is often driven by a disaster.

Justin Anthony, who co-founded a site called Artwork Archive to help people keep track of their collections, only came to catalog his own after his home in Denver was flooded in 2013. The water destroyed several pieces of art.

“I had a conversation with my insurance company, but I didn’t have anything to prove to them the value of what was lost,” said Anthony, a tech entrepreneur. “My insurance company didn’t pay me for my loss. I had such a small little rider related to the art, so it was rendered a total loss.”

At the time, his collection was small. The most expensive piece lost, he said, was a 19th century French lithograph that cost about $5,000. But it got him thinking about ways to help collectors and artists easily keep track of what they have, when they bought it, how much they paid and what the value is now.

He designed the Artwork Archive with several premises, he said: It had to be private, it had to be comprehensive and it had to include the information needed by insurance companies and estate planners. If something happens to the collection, the system produces a report with the required information, including photos from multiple angles, receipts, appraisals and replacement value.

“We wanted users to be able to collaborate with their insurance companies, their estate planners or an auction house if they’re trying to sell the work,” he said. “We wanted the barrier to entry to be low; a lot of the people we were working with were less tech savvy.”

(The service charges a monthly fee based on the size, not the value, of the collection. It goes up to $19 a month for individuals and $96 a month for institutional collectors.)

Geoffrey Koslov, a collector and co-owner of a Houston photography gallery, Foto Relevance, uses the Artwork Archive system for the works of artists he represents. He did it to manage his business as well as for insurance coverage.

But like many collectors, his personal collection is still listed in “binders and folders and a manual spreadsheet” — all things that could be destroyed in a flood, as was his own home in 2001 when a tropical storm flooded Houston. (He rebuilt his home higher, he said, and has weathered subsequent floods.)

There are many services that help owners and artists catalog their works, like Art Galleria, Artlogic and Veevart. Art advisers like the Winston Art Group, among the largest independent art appraisers in the U.S., also have their own proprietary systems.

Most important to collectors, though, is keeping what they own confidential.

“If you’re going to have a location, a picture, a description and a value of a piece of art, the most important part is confidentiality,” said Shanna Hennig, director of the Southwest region for Winston Art Group. Otherwise, the online system risks being a guidebook for art thieves.

Her group will catalog a collection while appraising it and consulting on buying and selling pieces. Hennig said that work revealed how lax some private collectors can be and the risk that poses.

“You’ll see Picasso one and Picasso two listed on someone’s insurance schedule,” she said. “Then, when you see them in the house, you can’t tell which one is which. The Picasso lithograph could be $5,000 and the Picasso oil on canvas could be $8 million.”

A firm like Winston Art Group is “the necessary evil,” she said. “No one calls us out of the blue to do this.” Generally, estate attorneys or insurance companies reach out to get collections cataloged.

Rare, then, is the do-it-yourselfer like Atlan who has been working on his collection for the past four years He has cataloged some 300 objects but said he is only a third of the way through and estimated that he has at least four to five years to go, if he can maintain the same pace and slow his collecting.

“If I’m a good boy and stick to it, I’ll get it done,” he said. “But if I procrastinate, then it’s done when I’m dead.”

Collectors also need advice on when to move their works somewhere safe.

Sarah Johnson Court, a managing director at VF Global Insurance, a brokerage that caters to wealthy individuals and collectors, said she has clients in Palm Beach, Florida, whose art is removed and put into storage when they leave their home for the season. Others cover outdoor sculptures with giant Kevlar boxes to protect them from flying debris in hurricanes.

Atlan said he has a fatalistic view of his collection. It may get destroyed in a natural disaster in his lifetime, he said. “Once you’ve accepted art will decay, it’s a burden lifted from your shoulders,” he said.

Besides the economic value, he sees another virtue to cataloging: It reminds him of what he has. “I can’t sit here in my home and look at 200 or 300 pieces at once,” he said. “But I can look at everything on my computer. I can see everything.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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