The week before the Thomas fire roared into Santa Barbara County, a new client asked me for an appointment for an appraisal for insurance purposes. On Dec. 5,, my photographer John and I visited the client in a beautiful Summerland home. By Dec. 7, I had a rough idea of the value of his family's 20 beautiful German Expressionist paintings. By Dec. 9, our office building was evacuated, and I had to rush away, taking only my computer. On Dec. 10, John and I were evacuated from our house. The client with the gorgeous collection of rare oil paintings was ALSO evacuated, and we all left Santa Barbara, with so many other folks.
Evacuated, I worked through Dec. 11 to help get my client's appraisal completed. I worried about his family's treasured paintings, originally curated by a great-grandparent.
Getting the paintings out of his Summerland home on the night of Dec. 10 was fast and furious. He told me that he grabbed blankets off the bed and towels off the bathroom rack, wrapped all 20 canvases -- and threw them in his SUV. At this time, we believe they are undamaged, but he wonders about smoke residue, now and into the near future.
Since early December clients have asked me many questions:
Even if you do not have an appraisal of your valued objects by a certified appraiser, source your own photos of the objects. Dedicated photos of those objects are important proofs of ownership, and relative condition before damage can usually be ascertained thanks to digital photography.
Take photos after the fire has left its smoke residue, sooner rather than later. Take those photos in raking light: Shine a flashlight to the sides of the canvas. This casts an oblique angle to catch views of the traces of particles of soot hiding in the texture of the paint surface. Use your computer to blow the images up, and prepare to be astounded.
Do not touch, wipe or attempt to clean or dust paintings. Oil is a living medium and absorbs atmospheric particles. Even the softest touch can accelerate that absorption. Take the painting to a conservator, trained in emergency response, to get an assessment report, a plan of action, and a quote of what it will cost. The conservator will want to see a smoke-damaged painting as soon as possible because of the damage from the acidity of soot. His condition report is essential for an insurance claim. Based on the condition report, an assessment of restoration/repair charges can be estimated; save that paperwork for an insurance claim.
If a painting has damage to the point which requirs a major repair, the market value of a work may decrease. This is called "loss of value." Loss of value is a hypothetical estimation. Of course, you love your work of art and would never sell it, but once repaired, the value if sold would be less in the eyes of the market. The loss of value of a piece in dollars can often be negotiated in conversation with your insurer. To determine loss of value work with a professionally certified fine art appraiser.
Cleaning, often thought to be part of life after a fire, takes on dangerous overtones when it comes to fine art.
Grime, soot, dust and unknown particles must be removed for aesthetic and preservation reasons, but also because that accumulation is often a weighty load for the canvas to support. This extra tension adds to the vulnerability of the paint below. The acid and soot can break down canvas fibers. Skilled conservators, when cleaning, work in small sections of the painting to relieve surface tension of the overall canvas, paint and varnish. Therefore, you see this is no task for an amateur.
My client from Summerland who evacuated with his paintings left behind his great-grandmother's 18th-century furniture. The patina of this furniture has not been touched in almost 300 years, and the marketplace loves original finishes on valuable antique furniture.
Clean that old wood furniture that has sat in that smoky house with two things ONLY: an old soft 100 percent wool sock and a can of beeswax. Use NOTHING else. Avoid vacuums, blowers, spray polishes and anything that forces soot into smaller crannies, where the acid can eat away at the wood and glues.
Finally, a word on rehanging your work of art. Now is the time to rethink how one hangs valuable works. As you might have noticed when you grabbed the painting off the wall to evacuate, a simple nail and hook is not sufficient.
Look into two great new hanging methods used by MOMA and other great galleries. For security purposes, I love the Ryman hanger that grips paintings to the wall. If an intruder wants that painting, a Ryman hanger will thwart a thief who is used to lifting a painting up and over the hook.
Clients often invest in Lucite boxes for very high-end art after a fire. Before you think of this, speak to a good framer. Sometimes Lucite contains chemicals that can damage certain works on paper.
Lighting is an issue when works are boxed. Works do not like airless containers and refracted light. Consider the old-fashioned way of glazing all mediums of artwork: under glass, in a supporting frame, with a fillet bumper, and an open dust-covered back.
While we hope there won't be another fire, for future emergencies, remember to transport works of art in an upright position supported by the bottom of the frame -- being ever mindful of the attached hardware. My Summerland client was wise to wrap his paintings. Oil on canvas is an extremely resilient medium; however, a puncture wound is the hardest repair to accomplish and will always result in loss of value. More works are damaged in transport than by soot itself.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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