Julius Karash on Business and the Arts: Amid Heightened Concern Over Natural Disasters, Overland Park Conservator Restores Hurricane-Damaged Artworks

Van Witt examines the damage to the frame and stretcher bar of the painting from flooded Sanibel Island. (courtesy of Peggy Van Witt)

Last fall, headlines from Southwest Florida trumpeted Hurricane Ian’s impact on art.

“Fort Myers Beach Art Association Gallery lost to Hurricane Ian,” said the “Fort Myers Beach News.”

“Hurricane Ian pounded Naples arts buildings, ruining some venues, leaving fish at others,” said the “Naples Daily News.”

Ian also took aim at the artworks of individual collectors, including those belonging to a Sanibel Island resident who frantically called Overland Park conservator Peggy Van Witt.

“The owner lost his entire house,” Van Witt said. “He was able to go back in and pull some objects out of the mud. He said he was devastated, and he asked me what to do.”

Fortunately for the art collector, Van Witt draws on knowledge she has gained from restoring nearly 10,000 pieces of art during the course of her career. Ian was the first hurricane to summon her expertise, but she could write a book on how to save artworks damaged by water and mud.

“I told him that water is the enemy, and that he needed to dry it out and brush off the big chunks of mud with a bristle brush. If you have mud on varnish, you can remove the mud fairly easily because the varnish acts as a barrier coat. But I told him not to try to wash it or clean it, because that would ruin the paint. It was on a commercially primed canvas with an acrylic ground, which helped hold it together. If it had been artist primed, it’s very possible that the paint would have blistered off.”

Van Witt journeyed to her Naples studio during the first week of December and dove into restoring artworks for clients such as the Sanibel resident. One of his damaged artworks was an impressionistic painting of three birds.

“I removed the painting from the stretcher bar,” she said. “The painting was dry, but I could smell a rotten odor from the saltwater and sewage and rainwater. I took the stretcher bars off, examined the painting, and documented where the damage was.”

Van Witt’s examination revealed white spots in the top section of the painting, which she attributed to saltwater. She carefully cleaned the painting, applied a coat of colorless varnish to it, and repainted the areas that had been damaged.

Restoring the painting took two to three days, including re-stretching and drying time. “I was able to perfectly restore it,” she said. “There was only minimal damage once I got it cleaned, and the damage was reversible.”

The Kansas City area lies outside the hurricane zone but is no stranger to flooding. Wherever they live, Van Witt advises owners of water-damaged paintings to dry them immediately. That can involve removing the frame, mat and backing board. “You’ll probably end up throwing away the frame and the mat and the backing board. If you see mold starting to form, try using a HEPA vacuum cleaner or spraying it with isopropyl alcohol, if you know the object can take that. Clean it with cleaners that don’t affect the paint.”

Peggy Van Witt looks at the finish of a painting pulled from the mud after Sanibel Island flooded during Hurricane Ian last fall. (courtesy of Peggy Van Witt)

Van Witt warned that water-damaged artworks that remain wet too long will fall prey to mold. “Mold eats pigment and eats paper. It weakens all the organic materials.”

To prevent or at least partially prevent damage before it happens, Van Witt recommends protecting paintings with an acid-free foam core backing board. “It seals the back of the painting.”

And she urges art owners to keep their paintings off the floor. “They should never be sitting on the floor, because they will act like a sponge and wick up moisture off the floor. The safest place for them to be is hanging on the wall. But if you think there’s a disaster coming, remove them. If you have backing boards on them, you can stand them together in a safe place. The backing boards also prevent the paintings from rubbing up against each other.”

Climate change boosts cost of insuring art “Artwork Archive,” a collection management platform, recommends keeping an up-to-date inventory of all the pieces in your art collection and working with an insurance agent to obtain proper coverage. It further recommends that each piece have coverage that is appropriate for the medium, value and merit, based on a recent appraisal.

But according to “The Art Newspaper,” “climate change is making it more expensive to insure art.” In an April 22, 2022, article, the newspaper said art coverage policies have become increasingly difficult to obtain or renew and contain many new restrictions.

The article quoted William Fleischer, president of the Bernard Fleischer & Sons insurance company, who said clients living in areas hit with recurring losses and claims due to natural disasters are paying up to 25 percent premium increases to renew full insurance protection for their art collections.

Claire Marmion, founder and CEO of the Haven Art Group art management company, said the “concentration of valuable collections corresponds to the places that are most prone to catastrophic events,” such as Florida, California (particularly Los Angeles) and the tri-state area of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

Mary Pontillo, national fine arts practice leader at Risk Strategies, an insurance brokerage company, said collectors in California have experienced the greatest difficulty in obtaining new or renewed coverage, as many insurance carriers will not take on any more risk, are greatly increasing prices, or are not renewing clients’ coverage at all.

“If all domestic insurance companies decline a risk, I can usually find someone at Lloyd’s of London who will consider the coverage,” Pontillo said. “But the terms, pricing and requirements may not be something a client wants to consider.”

Amee Yunn, assistant vice president of Berkley Asset Protection, said many wealthy people flocked to Florida during the COVID pandemic and they took their art with them, but that concentration of wealth in areas prone to flooding and hurricane damage poses significant risks to the financial health of insurance carriers. “We are seeing far more billion-dollar claims now than just 10 years ago,” she said.

“The Art Newspaper” said the insurance industry is increasingly emphasizing risk mitigation, particularly for art collectors who live in places where natural disasters are recurring events. Such mitigation includes the creation of disaster plans that identify the worst problems that may occur and what to do about them. Such plans should be in writing and kept accessible in one’s home, Marmion said.

While the Kansas City area is not considered as disaster prone as California and Florida, its history is intertwined with catastrophic flooding.

“No area is immune from disaster,” Van Witt said. “If it’s not hurricanes then it’s floods, fires, tornadoes. Everybody is going to get something eventually.”

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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