6 Key Risks to Museums and Fine Art Entities

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By Travelers
3 minutes
Close up of a gold statue in a museum.

Fine art can be a priceless asset. It can also be fragile, easily damaged, and hard to restore and protect. Museums, galleries, art dealers, universities, collectors and other organizations that house valuable collections face a range of challenges when it comes to keeping their investments safe.

Here are six key risks to consider:

1. Water

A picture frame with water droplets.  

Water is a significant threat to fine art, and damage can occur due to a variety of reasons, including burst pipes, sewer backups and leaking roofs. Paintings, photographs and other art objects can be extremely vulnerable to its effects, which can cause a broad spectrum of damages. Examples include:

  • Cracking and flaking paint.
  • Cloudiness (or “blanching”) to a painting’s surface layer.
  • Structural damage, including splitting and warping of wooden frames and supports.
  • Mold and other toxins that can harm the appearance and integrity of a piece.

Humidity is also something to be aware of. Without adequate controls, humidity can fluctuate dramatically over the course of a year, causing damaging effects to art over time. These risks apply to collections on display, in storage and in transit. Collections stored below grade are at greater risk.

2. Fire

A picture frame with fire.  

Art centers can be particularly susceptible to the risk of fire. A fire that begins in the structure, or in a neighboring restaurant or apartment building, may quickly spread and destroy a gallery’s entire collection. Museums, galleries and personal collections housed within historic structures can be especially vulnerable to fire. Wildfires also pose a growing risk to structures within certain regions, especially when conditions are ripe for rapid ignition, such as during extremely dry conditions and during high winds. With fire comes the potential for damage from soot and smoke, which can fill tiny cracks and crevasses within a valued work of art and cause discoloration over time.

3. Breakage

A broken picture frame.  

Breakage can be a significant risk for works of art, whether they’re in transit, in storage or on display. Common factors that contribute to breakage include:

  • Handling, especially if the object is large, heavy or fragile.
  • Jarring and impact.
  • Improper packing or crating prior to transit.

4. Vandalism

A picture frame with a spray can.  

Vandals damage art for varied reasons. They may be motivated by a social or political cause, or they may be disgruntled museum goers or simply seeking notoriety. Many acts of vandalism are random, done for no apparent reason other than to cause damage or destruction.1 Vandalism usually occurs while an object is on public display, whether inside a gallery or museum or outside in a public square. Vandals can use many items to damage a piece, including acid, paint, hammers, knives and even lipstick. Restoration can be costly and time-consuming.

5. Light

A picture frame with a light bulb.  

Light is essential for viewing the beauty and intricacies of fine works of art, but exposure to too much light can permanently damage a piece over time. Both natural and artificial light contain potentially destructive radiation. Ultraviolet rays in particular can lead to fading, yellowing, cracking and lifting of surfaces, and disintegration of materials. Paint, ink, textiles, wood, leather and photographs are among the many art materials that are susceptible to light damage.2

6. Theft

An illustration of a hooded person holding a picture frame.  

The FBI estimates that between $4 billion and $6 billion worth of art is stolen worldwide every year.3 Most art theft centers on residential burglaries of private collections.4 However, thieves also target galleries, museums and other places where art is housed. The theft of even one work of fine art can represent a huge financial and cultural loss.

Partner with an Experienced Insurer

Travelers has the experience and technical proficiency to help art institutions assess their valuable collections and protect them from loss.

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