Investors Overlook Risks to Pricey Collectibles

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The wealthy have their indulgences, from fine art to rare wines, and protecting them means more than having an insurance policy. Sometimes it means hiring private agents to run a sting on thieves. Sometimes it means just remembering to turn on the damn alarm system.

"Risk management" and "asset protection" are more than just standard financial terms for Gary Raphael, senior vice president of claims and risk consulting for ACE Private Risk Services, the high-net-worth personal insurance business of the ACE Group ( ACE).

Just a collection of comic books, but people have killed to get them and died defending them. Many collectors fail to properly guard their goods, experts say.

Investors need to consider the risks threatening the value and safety of their collections and take the often neglected steps to protect their treasures, he says. With affluent consumers using collections to diversify investment portfolios, too often they do not devote adequate time and effort to managing the risks involved with owning such prized collections.

There is no shortage of tales to illustrate when bad things happen to valuable art and collectibles.

There is, for example, the now notorious 2006 party thrown by casino mogul Steve Wynn where he accidentally put his elbow through Picasso's La Reve, a painting he had just sold for $139 million. Although the painting was restored, his sale of it was canceled after its value plummeted by a reported $40 million.

An antique 1909 German Steiff teddy bear valued at $75,000 was torn to pieces by a guard dog while on loan to a children's museum in England.

A 12-year-old boy visiting the Detroit Institute of the Arts with his sixth-grade class damaged a Helen Frankenthaler canvas when he stuck a wad of chewing gum on the painting.

The unique tastes of some collectors can present equally unique challenges, though.

"People's tastes and interests go in a lot of directions," he says. "Sometimes you can't explain what people are passionate about, and who are we to question? I remember a client who collected old tin kitchen containers and had amassed one of the largest collections in the world of these old sugar and flour containers. He was as proud of it as if he had Picassos and Warhols on the wall. We've had people who were interested in taxidermy and recreated wildlife and jungle settings and settings in rooms of their house and with hundreds and hundreds of animals around the property. How do you value a white albino African zebra? How do you counsel somebody on protecting a 4,000-pound stuffed water buffalo?"

Many collectors shun proper security measures, he says.

"They assume that something just won't happen to them or they believe they have taken appropriate steps and may not be aware there is more that can be done," he says. "Others, quite frankly, view things as overkill or think added security or protection takes away from their ability to enjoy a collection. They spend a lot of time, and commit a lot of energy and passion into developing collections, but when it comes time to actually create the right environment and protective measures to house or display an item, they will just give it limited attention."

Art theft is increasingly common.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that art theft and smuggling result in annual global losses each year between $4 billion and $6 billion. In May, five paintings by such artists as Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger and Alfredo Modigliani were stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Their combined value was estimated at between $126 million and $635 million.

Most art is stolen from private homes, not institutions, Raphael says, recalling one client who had "two items of renown" taken from their home. In response, ACE Private Risk hired a security expert who tracked down the suspects and posed as a buyer.

"It was just like a movie," he says. "They met in a seedy hotel room and once the pieces were validated as being present in the room, the suspects were immediately apprehended. Some care had to be taken to make sure they wouldn't lash out and try to damage the items."

"I've had conversations with people who have had significant art stolen from their residence and they were very mindful of making sure it did not get exposure in the mainstream media," he says. "Their interest had very little to do with an insurance claim for the possessions that were taken. They will go to whatever lengths they need to get this item back."

But how about ensuring the items don't get taken in the first place? Even when a security system is installed as protection, all too often the owners get complacent.

"A lot of this could be avoided if only someone actually activated the alarm system," Raphael says. "A lot of people will install some sophisticated things to protect against theft and then hardly use them."

Even comic books aren't exempt. A Buffalo, N.Y. man died this month after robbers cut phone lines and sneaked into his home before dawn, making off with a $40,000 collection of comics dating back to the 1930s -- first battering the owner when he found them on the job. Police have charged an area businessman with hiring the thugs who broke in.

Comic books aren't usually thought of as valuable, but Detective Comics No. 27, from 1939, sells at $1.8 million since introducing Batman to the world. Failing to recognize the value of your own goods -- or thinking others won't -- can lead collectors to let down their guard.

Transportation is another asset risk many fail to consider.

"I've seen statistics that say somewhere in the range of 60% to 70% of all art losses occur during transit," Raphael says. "We have people who will purchase multimillion-dollar pieces of art who will have someone on their staff go out in a cab to go get it. I wish I was making that up, but I'm not. We have more people sending fairly valuable pieces via UPS ( UPS) and FedEx ( FDX) than you can believe."

Airport security is another threat to valuables. Transportation Security Administration rules allow security personnel to open and inspect packaged goods. A crate containing a valuable painting or sculpture could be cracked open and reassembled -- undoubtedly without the same level of care exercised by professional art shippers, leading to damaged and lost items.

Loaning pieces of a collection to a museum or other cultural institution needs to be carefully considered.

"A lot of cultural institutions are financially constrained, and it is an area of vulnerability," he says, citing transportation to and from the museum, on-site security, climate control and lighting as just some of the factors that need to be considered before entrusting a collection.

At home, owners need to understand the safest way to display and secure artwork, factoring in wild weather, earthquakes and other potential hazards.

"Your $1 million, seven-foot bronze statue in Palm Beach may be screwed to a granite base, but when winds blow at 125 miles an hour, you can't assume it won't become an airborne missile," he says. He recommends developing an "evacuation" plan to handle disasters such as fire or flood, whether it's a statue or painting, or other collectible.

"We sometimes say that he best thing to do, from a disaster perspective, is to just leave the painting where it is, because you can actually do more harm than good by taking it off the wall and attempting to move it," he says, "because then you have introduced a whole bunch of wild cards in terms of what can happen."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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