Preserving art for future generations: a claims perspective
By AXA XL Vice President and Claims Manager, Fine Art, Jewelry and Specie, Natasha Fekula
A vacuum cleaner running through a Picasso sitting against a wall, a cleaning person mistaking an installation for trash and discarding it, even a dog attacking another dog in a painting – those are just some of the art claims that Natasha Fekula has seen in her work as head of claims for AXA XL’s Fine Art and Specie division. Natasha, who joined AXA in 2002, turned a lifelong interest in art into a successful, interesting insurance career.
We sat down with Natasha to learn about her path to the Art and Specie claims arena and to understand how her department works toward preserving art now and into the future.
Where did your interest in the art industry begin?
Natasha: I grew up in New York City. Both of my parents were interested in the arts, so I would go to museums with them. My father particularly liked going to auctions. I would go along and watch – they were very exciting.
At age sixteen, I had a summer internship in the Russian department at Christie's. That was followed by an internship at Christie’s in the Chinese Works of Art department and the jewelry department.
Seems like you were positioned well to enter the art industry job market.
Yes, I went to university, then to law school and when I graduated from law school, I wanted to work in-house in the legal department at an auction house. Fortunately, a position opened at Sotheby's. However, the compensation was not ideal, so I began looking for opportunities outside of the organization.
I discovered the AXA Art division. I was able to transition my litigation experience into their claims department. I joined AXA Art and was in the job a few years when an underwriter at AXA left to join a newly created Fine Art and Specie team at XL and brought me over. I worked at XL until the acquisition of XL by AXA. So, I went back to working at AXA! My daughter asked me, ‘Did they buy the company to get you back?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes.” (She laughs.)
What have been some of the more interesting parts of your job?
When a claim comes in, you have to research different artists, different collecting areas that you might not be as familiar with. While we do hire appraisers, I get to do some of my own research. That exposes you to anything that collectors collect. I get to do mini deep dives. With the specie business, I have also learned about jewelers’ block, which I was not exposed to previously. We insure the entire supply chain: the mining companies, refineries, jewelry manufacturers, salespeople all the way to the retail stores. Additionally, the armored cars and check cashiers. It really broadens the scope of one’s knowledge.
You are coming off a few years of pandemic-related closures and slowdowns. How have things changed?
Activity was very quiet for a couple of years during COVID. There weren’t fairs. From a claims perspective, most of our work is generated through transit-related damages, so we had a quiet few years. Now, things are back and the art industry is bustling and thriving. Plus, there are always more and more fairs being added to the calendar.
That must be exciting to see so many new artists emerging.
I enjoy getting out there and visiting galleries and museums and the various art fairs. Getting to see the art before a claim happens and meeting our insured is exciting. I like keeping up with new galleries and artists, new people in the industry, new appraisers and conservators.
How have you seen the industry change?
In the course of my career, there’s been an evolution from a private collector collecting an area of art that they feel a connection to, to having art be more of an investment. It definitely impacts how claims are handled. Claims are settled differently when someone is collecting art for an investment purpose.
You’ve seen some interesting claims, haven’t you?
Oh, definitely. A few that stand out: someone had an installation going in and the cleaning person came in and saw a plastic bottle lying around, cleaned it up and tossed it, that bottle was part of the exhibit; a Picasso was leaning against a wall on the floor and someone vacuuming ran the machine right through it. My favorite claim was probably the dog that attacked a painting. It was a small dog that had gotten angry at one of the dogs in an English hunting scene, so he jumped from the bed and ripped that one part of the painting.
How is the Claims division facilitating the preservation of art for future generations?
If a work is damaged, our goal is restoration as opposed to declaring it a total loss. Sometimes you have no option but declare a total loss, but if restoration is possible, we work towards that. The most interesting part of the job is seeing a damaged work go through the restoration process and the appraisal process after that. Working with a conservator and an appraiser you have a relationship with is essential. You need to trust that they are choosing the correct approach and are an expert in that particular area of art or jewelry.
You also want to be mindful of geographic considerations –ideally, you’d like the conservation to take place where the object is located so you don’t risk incurring transit damage to an already compromised work. Sometimes that’s not an option or the best conservator is across the country. The goal is to restore the piece in an aesthetically satisfactory way.
Conservation has changed over the years – it used to be more intrusive than it is now. Now, the lightest touch is applied so that it can be reversed in the future should conservation expertise evolve. It’s exciting to see a work that has been restored. I know where the damage is and I cannot find any trace of it. It’s magical. There is some real skill behind it.
All of this is available to AXA XL clients, is it not?
Exactly. We have a team of art and specie experts who have built decades-long relationships with top appraisers, conservators and with the influencers and heads of the art industry itself. Our business is solely focused on protecting art, helping collectors keep their collections safe, and offering the best resources when damage occurs.
If you collect it, we can help you protect it. From art to antique cars and anything that one collects, we can provide insurance coverage as well as industry and collectible expertise specific to what you collect.
About AXA XL
AXA XL is the P&C and specialty risk division of AXA which provides property, casualty, professional and speciality products to industrial, commercial and professional firms, insurance companies and other enterprises, here in the UK and throughout the world. With underwriting teams based in the US, UK, EMEA and Asia Pacific regions, we can make decisions close to the markets you serve and work with you to tailor cover to your business needs.
We help businesses adapt and thrive amidst change. Rather than just paying covered claims when things go wrong, we go beyond protection into prevention so your business can go beyond the unexpected.