Climate activists’ attacks raising art insurance premiums

Photo: Kristian Buus/In Pictures/Getty Image

Climate activists' attacks on some of the world's most precious paintings have added to insurers' worries about the threat to the art pieces, and projecting a rise in premiums.

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In recent weeks, activists have drawn attention to the climate cause by throwing tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery in London and a black liquid at Gustav Klimt's “Death and Life” in the Leopold Museum in Vienna to protest against the use of fossil fuels.

Both paintings were behind glass or a screen. A spokesperson for the National Gallery said only “minor damage” was done to the Sunflowers' frame, while the Leopold Museum has said the Klimt was not damaged.

Many in the art and insurance world, however, say it may only be a matter of time before artworks are vandalised, especially if the activists are further emboldened.

Almost 100 galleries, including New York's Guggenheim and the Paris Louvre, earlier this month issued a statement saying the activists “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects”.

The protests were carried out mostly by climate change activists, who are mainly middle class liberals. Art insurers worry that subsequent protest groups might be less genteel and eventually destroy irreplaceable artworks.

Even if the art itself is not directly damaged, the clean-up costs of repairing a frame and remounting a picture can reach tens of thousands of dollars.

Art insurers are reportedly concerned about the potential risk, and are looking to increase premiums and scrutinising security of galleries and museums.

The global art insurance market earns around USD 750 million in premiums. Premium rates rose by around five percent in 2020 and 2021 and remained steady this year but insurers expect them to rise.

So far, the attacks have not led to claims, insurers and brokers say. It was unclear what the Leopold Museum's arrangements were, but the British government bears the risks for the National Gallery's permanent collections, according to a gallery spokesperson. Major museums often rely on governments to provide financial security in the event of damage rather than seeking commercial insurance. Commercial museums and galleries, however, buy art insurance, and its use is also more prevalent among larger museums in the United States than in Europe.

The premiums they pay have remained steady in part because more general concerns about terror attacks and violence had already tightened security in recent years, with more works behind glass, and increased numbers of security guards and bag searches.

In some cases, commercial insurers have also grown more wary, with one insurer who declined to be named saying it only insured artworks that were behind glass.

The attacks may also eat into government indemnity, the state insurance that covers major galleries when they are showing art they do not own.

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