When a client loses irreplaceable paintings and antiques in a fire, a sympathetic and swift settlement of their claim is equally priceless, Frank Benke explains….

Nothing can compensate emotionally for the loss in a fire or flood of family heirlooms of great sentimental or historic value. This was driven home to me when a fire raged through a flat in Eaton Place, London, and my company, Chubb, received a claim for the collection of oil paintings and antique furniture that had been damaged.

The best an insurer can do in such circumstances, I realised, is offer some comfort by settling claims as promptly, fully and accurately as possible and paying for the salvage and restoration of valuables wherever feasible.

The Eaton Place claim certainly put Chubb's Masterpiece insurance policy for fine homes and possessions to the test. I was briefed that the owner's study had gone up in flames when he made the mistake of emptying ash from his pipe into a waste-paper bin without fully extinguishing the embers. The bin's contents quickly ignited and a fire spread to the window blind and across the carpet, sweeping rapidly through the room.

The scene I witnessed when I arrived to assess the loss was pitiful. The study, used by the owner to display his collection of oil paintings, was badly burned and horribly damaged by smoke. Works of great sentimental value, including items left to the owner by his father, were among those destroyed.

A Joost Cornelisz Drooncheloot painting was entirely consumed by the flames, and only remnants of the frame survived. A Guiseppe Zais and an unattributed late 18th-century Italian painting were very badly carbonised and left beyond any chance of restoration.

Although it was further from the fire, a Jan Peeter Verdussen picture suffered too, because of the radiated heat. It was badly carbonised and the varnish was severely blistered. The centre of the canvas had been punctured by the heat, and the surface had peeled away.

The list went on. A still life by the owner's late mother was destroyed; an antique walnut commode, a mahogany butler's tray and an inlaid walnut and parquetry tripod table were fire damaged; and leather-bound books, curios, objets d'art, ornaments, silverware, lampshades and upholstered furniture fell victim to smoke damage.

Even towels and bedding in a hallway cupboard were covered in sticky soot, which had pervaded the flat wherever doors had been left open.

There was no question of policy liability, so I immediately wrote a cheque for £2,500 to assist the owner in buying certain contents. Deeply distressed by the whole experience, he was relieved that we were giving his claim sympathetic consideration.

I then set to work arranging for a fine art expert to examine the paintings. I planned the restoration of the pieces of antique furniture that could be salvaged, made arrangements with the owner for an antiquarian book valuer to be hired to assess the condition of the books, and set in place a thorough clearing-up operation.

Every effort was made to save the paintings and restore them to their previous condition, but most were too badly damaged.

Facing this horrible reality, the owner said it was of enormous comfort to him that the insurance settlement was hassle-free and seamless. He received a full-loss settlement of £74,000 for the destroyed paintings. This was no real compensation for the emotional upset, but was at least a true reflection of their current market value.

The reason we were able to calculate such an accurate settlement so quickly, was because we had already appraised the owner's house and its contents.

This appraisal service involves highly-trained, in-house professionals visiting policyholders' homes to establish an accurate rebuilding cost. They take into account special features and recommend levels of cover for contents and valuable belongings.

Most of the antiques could be saved and we settled on £6,000 for their restoration by prominent specialists. A further £22,500 was required for the cleaning and other restoration costs.

This experience shows that it can take only a few moments, and an easy mistake, for a disaster to happen. Therefore, it is important that homeowners, particularly those with valuable belongings, have proper wide-ranging insurance cover. And they need an excellent claims service they can rely on.

After all, when your treasured belongings are destroyed, that claims service is the only comfort – short of the items' magical resurrection – that you have left.

  • Frank Benke is a Chubb Europe senior claims adjuster.

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