Smoke Damage… from 40 miles away?!

I just completed a fine art claim evaluation from Chubb. I was hired to look over an estate in the Los Angeles area to determine smoke damage to fine art, sculpture, frames, decorated and gilt surfaces and murals that resulted from brush fires 2 years ago, 40 miles away.

In the entry, there were 5 vaulted ceilings similar to this one, except the crown moldings were gold

Obviously, there is probably more dust from the last two years than there are deposits from smoke. It might have been possible to analyze the “dust” with sophisticated analytical means to determine the difference between dust and smoke but that option would have cost $1,000′s and was rejected.

In the end, there are actually two questions: 1. Are there smoke deposits and 2. Do they cause damage? Since the analysis option was rejected, the presence of deposits from smoke was impossible for me to see with the naked eye. So, that question is unanswerable. So, my visit was to confirm or reject the claim of damage as a result of smoke deposits.

I carefully went through 10 pages of itemized objects that were represented in the $500,000.00 claim for repairs. The client accompanied me through the property explaining what he saw as the damages and concerns. He showed me gilt finishes that he thought had altered in color because of exposure to the smoke.

It is my opinion that the “alterations” that the client points out are actually diverse colors of original finishes that perhaps he no longer remembers or was aware of… but is now noticing. The gold decorated surfaces including architectural moldings, door frames, hanging light surrounds etc do not appear to me to be damaged because they were coated with a protective “varnish” when they were originally made. So, the smoke would have never touched the surface of the gilding (which was actually paint in most of the areas!). Close inspection and testing of the acrylic surface protective varnish was done on the columns in the entry hallway (which are included on the claim). Then, the characteristics of this protective finish were compared to and identified on all other gold surfaces I could personally inspect and it is assumed that the decorative finisher/artist’s technique was the same on all gilt surfaces (that were high and out of the way which I could not inspect close up).

The only place this gold finish is damaged/oxided/altered is on the banister of the grand staircase which is due to constant rubbing and exposure to oils and deposits from hands, not from the exposure to smoke. The protective acrylic coatings on the “gold” through out the house show no evidence of debris/deposits of smoke.

So, after my careful inspection, of all the individual items/objects (paintings, frames, etc) and finishes my opinion in my report is that there is no alteration of varnish finishes on artwork. The claimed alterations on frames finishes appear to be indistinguishable. And the varnish coatings on the gold protected them from any damage.

In this case, the result of my visit was good for Chubb. .. it could save them having to pay out the $500,000.00 claim. But then again, I inspected a single painting once for Chubb that was a claim for just shy of $1/2 million and they paid out even though they didn’t have to because they wanted to keep the client who had a massive collection, boats and other toys, houses etc all insured with them. So, in the end, what motivates the business of how an insurance company settles a claim?

Well, all that is not really my problem. I’m an advocate for the artwork. I tell “it” straight regardless of who is paying my billing. That makes me a credible expert witness and legal testimony.

Decorative moldings were through out the house… painted in gold, not gilt.

About Scott Haskins

Scott M. Haskins has been a professional art conservator since 1975. He is also author of "How To Save Your Stuff From A Disaster". He may be contacted at 805 564 3438
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