Collect Art, Not Ashes

  • May 12, 2009 13:40

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Smoke Decorated Box With Fitted Interior American, Ca. Early 19th Century Pine with dovetailed construction and original smoke decoration. Decorated interior fitted with a case of 5 drawers. Ex. Margaret Canavan.
RJG Antiques

After a foggy morning dawned on Mother's Day, Santa Barbara's Jesusita fire is now 70 percent contained. From May 5 to 9, the fire burned a total of 8,733 acres including 77 homes. About 4,000 firefighters and personnel have been on the scene, assisted by flame-snuffing helicopters and DC-10s flying day and night over ArtfixDaily's office in this usually tranquil seaside city.

In a previous post, I mentioned that Chubb Insurance Group reportedly sent private firefighters and engines to protect its customers' properties here with a "fire-resistant gel." This is a new practice that, although the results are unknown from this fire, may be a step toward shielding the loss of a home and its contents to fire (thus saving the insurance company some money).

In the U.S., direct property losses due to fire in 2007 came to about $14.6 billion. The November 2008 Tea Fire in Santa Barbara destroyed 230 homes resulting in property loss estimates in the hundreds of millions of dollars (including the destruction of art collections).

The value of insuring collections is a given. Yet, for many collectors, monetary reimbursement for losses would not make up for the destruction of a beloved artwork or other unique "treasure." How do you protect your most cherished belongings from environmental forces?

When red flames leapt 50 to 90 feet in the air, winds blew at 70mph, and smoke billowed across the Santa Ynez Mountains, many residents in our Santa Barbara neighborhood scrambled to pack their cars with important paperwork and a few belongings. Some had little time to get out. Because smoke and sprinklers can do as much damage as fire, it is important to take measures to protect your collections before a natural disaster occurs.

Besides the "investment-protection" of insurance and documenting your collection with photographs, here are some tips and informational links about protecting valuables from fire (in case you can't grab them as you go):

1. Store ephemera and works on paper in archival paper wrapped in aluminum foil. Keep them sealed in a metal box.

2. Install fire curtains and/or fire doors as used by many art institutions. See

3. Keep fire-resistant thermo-gel on hand to apply to the exterior of the home in a wildfire emergency. See

4. Have a fire risk assessment performed by a local professional (ie., insurer, fire safety specialist) for your home or business. Besides making sure your fire detectors, extinguishers, sprinklers or other fire systems are in working order, it is a good step to assess your home's outdoor "defensible space," landscaping issues, and other fire hazards that a professional can point out.

Of course, building a fireproof vault is another option. (During the Jesusita fire a retired professor battled the flames surrounding his home with garden hoses. He had built a fire-resistant cement bunker for his important papers and took his stand from the bunker. We prefer to scan our paperwork and keep it stored on our laptops...much more portable.)

While reflecting on this recent fire, an interview I conducted several years ago with an A-list marine art collector came to mind. For a magazine story, I asked her what one thing would she grab if her home were on fire. Her answer at first surprised me. She did not mention the most expensive artworks in her collection: A signature Bard paddlewheeler painting, a quintessential William Bradford harbor scene, or a tremendously coveted James Buttersworth America's Cup race picture.

The collector pointed to a very small, tranquil sunset coastal scene by Francis Silva. This little picture would be peace enough, she felt.

(Image shown: A smoke-decorated, early 19th c. box from RJG Antiques. $4,850.)


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Art & Antiques Notes

Art world news, exhibition reviews, and notes on collecting.

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