What I Learned from the California Fires
My wake-up call to the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties happened one morning as I drove from my weekend home in Gold Country into the little town of Sonora where I do my daily shopping. The skies were overcast with a haze that reminded me of the rim fires of some years ago. The air smelled of smoke. I turned on the local radio station in fear of a local fire, only to hear that this was, in fact, the effect of a fire four hours away from my home in Sonora. As I drove to my primary residence in Silicon Valley, the haze became worse and the smell of smoke intensified. It seemed illogical to an east coaster like myself that the effects of smoke and fire could be experienced in areas two and three hours from the localized fire. Once I returned to Silicon Valley, the emails started coming in canceling outdoor activities. With information pouring in about iconic wineries and homes being engulfed in fire, I reached out to our clients who I knew had homes in Napa and Sonoma. I had personally valued and assisted in the collection management for some of these clients and I knew the quality of the collections. I started thinking of the wonderful Monet on the wall of one of my clients and the story he told me of how he and his wife purchased the piece on their first trip to Paris. Millions of dollars of art was hanging on the walls of my clients’ homes in Napa and Sonoma.
Calls did come in and I began the work of saving the art.
Each trip into the smoke filled skies of Napa and Sonoma were reminders of why I do my job. My work as a tangible asset manager, advisor and appraiser can be summarized by two principal missions: valuation and protection of our clients’ most treasured objects.
On the Tuesday of the fire, a broker called me to let me know that one of her clients purchased a home that included the previous owner’s art collection. They did not have paperwork on the art and were not sure of the art’s values. However, they wanted to make sure the collection was appraised and taken out of the home. I traveled to Sonoma with an art packer and shipper. As I went through the home, pointing to the pieces that needed to be extracted out of the home, I quickly deduced that several of the pieces were valuable; most notable was a work by a pre-eminent African American artist. The work was hanging in the study and I valued it at $325,000. Had the work not been valued, the client would have received no more than the blanket coverage of $10,000 for a loss. However, the broker, the client, my administrative staff and I worked as a team and we were able to provide an appraisal within one hour of being on site. The broker quickly added the piece to the insurance schedule and the work was accurately insured. When each team member works in synchronicity with the goal of protecting the client, we always win.
Another client in Napa reminded me of the deep relationship we have with the objects we own. I received a call from an insurance broker who asked that I reach out to his client in Napa. It was late in the afternoon and the night before the fire had reached the hill behind their home. Their home is a magnificent turn of the century structure. It is an icon to the origins of settlement in Napa. However, the owner was not concerned with the objects of value. He was most concerned about a small group of humble antiques that he had inherited from his grandmother. His question to me was, “could we send someone that evening to Napa to pack and ship the pieces to a safe art storage facility?” We whipped into gear and arranged for the packing and pick up that evening. The concern in the client’s voice that he may lose the modest side table or the American antique chest reminded me how important these objects are to our clients. It was so gratifying to be able to help ensure that his family’s antiques were saved and it reminded me that monetary value alone is not always the motivation for action around tangible assets.
We are all resting more comfortably as the fires have ceased and the work of rebuilding has begun. However, it is still essential that everyone is prepared in advance of the next natural event.
KEY WILDFIRE PREPAREDNESS TIPS
Marsh | Private Client Services
- Prepare Your Family: Design an emergency plan and discuss it with your family before wildfire strikes. Encourage each household member to assemble a “go bag” — a collection of necessary items in case of evacuation.
- Prepare Your Home: Regular home upkeep, such as clearing your roof and gutters of leaves and debris, is the most effective defense against wildfire.
- Prepare Your Property: Firefighting experts and other authorities urge homeowners in wildfire-prone areas to create a zone of defensible space around your homes to reduce the chance of ignition from radiant heat or embers and to provide firefighters a clear area to operate.
- Prepare Your Art Collection: Appoint a trusted insurance advisor who can assist you with appropriate fine art risk management practices and help ensure your items are properly protected. Document your collection with current valuations in accordance with the international Object ID Checklist standard created by the J. Paul Getty Trust, and keep it in an off-site safety deposit box. Create an emergency evacuation plan that prioritizes your items and specifies where and how each piece will be moved.