French president Emmanuel Macron has offered to lend the UK the Bayeux Tapestry. How do you insure its transportation across the Channel? 

How do you insure something as priceless and irreplaceable as the Bayeux Tapestry?

It’s a reasonable question to ask, now that French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to lend this unique historical artifact to the UK.

“I wouldn’t want to estimate the value of the Bayeux Tapestry, because it is unique,” says James Lindow, underwriting director for art and private client at Ecclesiastical.

On top of that there are particular wrinkles in the art insurance market that have to be considered, he adds.

“The art market is completely unregulated, so there is no code of practice that must be followed,” he says.

“You’re relying on the specialisms of private shippers and packers to create a loss prevention analysis and create the right packing and climate controlled conditions, and only then can you think about how you move it off the wall and get it to the new location,” he adds.

Nail-to-nail cover

“It’s called nail-to-nail cover. From the moment it leaves institution A until the moment it arrives at institution B there is an exposure there.”

Macron made his pledge to during his visit to the UK in January as a kind of post-Brexit olive branch, symbolising the continued friendship between the UK and France even after Britain leaves the EU.

However, some cynics did point out that, as the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the overwhelming defeat of the English by the French, Macron may be communicating a slightly different message.

Nearly 1,000 years old, the 70 metre long tapestry depicts the dispute over the throne of England between William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. It shows William invading England and defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The tapestry famously shows Harold killed with an arrow in the eye.

It’s all a bit ’Game of Thrones’

The origins of the tapestry are lost in time, but it was definitely created in the late 11th century, possibly in Canterbury, for Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of the man who became William the Conqueror.

The tapestry has been housed in Bayeaux for centuries. It has only been removed from Bayeux twice in all that time. The first time was during the French Revolution when royal stuff was, to say the least, unfashionable, when it was used to cover military wagons. The second time was during the Second World War, when it was moved to Paris in preparation for a move to Berlin under Heinrich Himmler’s orders.

It is unlikely that, on either of those occasions, the subject of insurance came up.

This time, however, insurance will be key.

Overall insurance is likely to be provided by the British and French governments, who would take on the risk of loss or damage during transit and during its exhibition in the UK.

“I would imagine the French government would want to underwrite the transit component of this risk,” says Lindow, adding that once the tapestry is on exhibition in the UK, the British government will cover it through an established indemnity scheme run by the Arts Council.

“The government’s indemnity scheme is one of the reasons London has been such a powerhouse when it comes to getting these blockbuster exhibitions,” Lindow says. “For decades now the government has provided cost-free indemnity cover to borrowing institutions for loss or damage to art or cultural items on short or long term loans.”

The scheme has kept the admissions cost for these exhibitions lower than it might otherwise have been.

“The cost of going to an exhibition is high, but if you didn’t have government indemnity kicking in, providing that underwriting support for the big-ticket work coming in from around the world, it would be even more prohibitive to go and see exhibitions,” he said.

Third party risks

The insurance headache comes in for the private sector companies contracted to pack and transport the tapestry.

The process would start with a condition report by the lending institution, setting out in minute detail any blemishes or damage to the tapestry in its current location. A similar report by the borrowing institution will be carried out on arrival.

“If there’s any damage between A and B, you’d usually assume it would be paid for by the transit company, but that isn’t always the case,” says Lindow.

“Quite often the art transit company try and push their luck and ask the insurance company to waive its subrogation, its rights of recourse against them,” he says.

“But if there is damage, you’re then into that absolute quagmire of depreciation: what was the item worth? And what’s it worth now it’s damaged?”

Lindow says there are examples where depreciation through transit damage has been hugely significant, and with the Bayeux Tapestry, that could occur with even the smallest tear.

There is also the question of who is responsible for any damage. There are stages in transit where the items are outside the direct control of the principal transit contractor, with subcontractors, or airport staff or customs officers in contact with the items.

“Most of the losses you see in transit are through carelessness or human error,” he says.

“You’ve got this wonderful piece, all boxed up in a crate, and then a third party shipper drives the forklift through the crate. Or things get dropped by curators,” he says.

“That sort of thing should be picked up by the transit company, but proving negligence is difficult.”

Hopefully, whichever method of transport is used for the Bayeux Tapestry won’t suffer the same fate as Swissair flight 111 from New York to Zurich, which plunged into the ocean off Halifax, Canada. A fragment of the Picasso painting it was carrying was recovered from the wreckage, but no trace was found of the 1kg of diamonds and 5kg of other jewellery it was carrying in its hold.

Lloyd’s insurers were reported to have paid out $300m for the diamonds and jewellery.

The cost of any damage to the Bayeux Tapestry could dwarf that.