Faced with the risk of vandalism or theft, works of art are insured… or not

Faced with the risk of vandalism or theft, works of art are insured… or not
Faced with the risk of vandalism or theft, works of art are insured… or not

Sprays of paint, flour, soup, tags: recent targets of environmental activists or performance artists, works of art in public museums are however not insured except in the case of loan or movement, unlike those exhibited in private institutions.

The painting “The Origin of the World” by Courbet (1866), tagged with red paint on Monday at the Center Pompidou-Metz (east) by the performance artist Deborah de Robertis claiming an “action”, was protected by a glass. The famous Mona Lisa, considered “invaluable”, is placed under armored glass at the Louvre Museum.

But other masterpieces exhibited in major French museums do not have such protection: in the event of depredation, destruction or theft, the State is its own insurer and is not compensated.

“Public authorities do not generally insure their works, with the exception of deposits of private works,” the French Ministry of Culture told AFP in 2023. In the event of damage in their usual place of exhibition , it is “the State or the community” which implements “the necessary expenditure”.

On the other hand, private institutions such as the Giacometti and Louis Vuitton foundations or the Pinault Collection, “generally insure their collections”, according to Irène Barnouin, head of the Arts branch of the insurance broker WTW in France.

It is then private insurance companies – often “specialized players from large known insurance groups”, such as Axa XL, Helvetia, Hiscox, Liberty specialties market, QBE – who cover the work, with “different levels of ‘insurance”.

For public museums, “insuring (in their walls) the works, of often inestimable value, would not make them less vulnerable and it would be an extremely high expense without correlation with the risk of depredation”, indicated the French Ministry of Defense. Culture.
On the other hand, in the case of loan or transfer, no choice: the works of art must be insured by the institution which borrows them, whether public or private.

It is in the “handling phases”, “when we take the work off the nail, package it, put it in a means of transport and take it out to put it back on the nail”, that the risk is the highest to damage it, according to Daphné de Marolles, head of the Arts branch of Axa XL in France.

The Center Pompidou-Metz received “The Origin of the World”, which represents a female gender, as part of a loan granted by the Musée d’Orsay. In such a case, the insurance taken out by the original museum also covers the work in its host organization.

This “nail to nail” guarantee fixes the value of the work as well as the amount of the insurance premium, which also depends on other parameters (nature of transport, exhibition conditions, etc.).
This bonus can amount to “several millions or even hundreds of millions”, according to the Ministry of Culture.

An action by environmental activists which damages a painting would constitute “vandalism”, a case in point “always included in private insurance contracts”, specifies Ms Barnouin. But this does not prevent a certain “concern” from institutions, faced with “aggravated risks”.

Recent years have indeed been marked by numerous violent actions by environmental activists, spraying Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” with tomato soup in London or covering Claude Monet’s “Meules” with puree in Berlin.

“Even if several events have hit the headlines, we are not facing a crazy occurrence,” tempers Daphné de Marolles. The works affected so far were “protected by glass, and the damage was relatively low”, underlines the expert.
For her, activist attacks are more of a “symbol to send a message” than a desire to generate “irreparable damage”.

“The subject is the safety of works and the safety of establishments,” believes the Ministry of Culture, joined on this point by this expert. However, she believes that we should not put art under a cover but “find a certain balance”, because the mission of a museum is also to “preserve the emotion of the public in front of a work”.



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