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Trends and Hot Topics in Fine Art and Insurance- The Ebbs and Flows of Fine Art in Higher Education

Welcome back to another iteration of Trends and Hot Topics in Fine Art and Insurance. In our previous post, we explored the landscape in a post-COVID art world, investigating the recent uptick in art vandalisms and the insurance capacity ‘squeeze’ in highly sought-out fine art specialized storage facilities. For this post, we’ll dive into the higher education space with feedback from two reputable art friends of Balance Partners, a well-known insurance broker and an expert in art provenance.


Briefly touching upon how higher education’s collections faired based on the topics in our previous article [1], Eric Fischer, Senior Vice President of Fine Art at Willis Towers Watson, mentions “Nothing related to COVID specifically, we are seeing exhibitions return to normal. Don’t want to jinx, but Universities have not been targeted [by protestors]- mostly the big museums with high profile work. Most universities have their own storage locations, so the capacity squeeze at the big fine art warehouses is not as much as an issue.”


Clearly a good thing for universities, however, other challenges face them regarding their art collections. “Lack of funding [has been a big challenge]. Medicine, Law, Engineering, and Business get all the big donations- not so much in the Fine Arts.” Taking my insurance hat off, as a normal human being this doesn’t really surprise me (and probably anyone, but still not particularly a positive) given the inflation rate and state of America’s economy today. Putting the insurance hat back on, just because there are challenges facing insureds and the nation doesn’t necessarily mean things are bad in the insurance industry. When asked about if he has seen any changes in the Fine Art insurance market specific to universities and their collections, Fischer notes, “Not really [regarding rates, wordings, etc.], the market has been relatively stable”. (Glancing at my book of business now- I would agree).


From an underwriter’s perspective, university collections are among the best risks we could ask to write. As college campuses have their own police force and adhere to strict fire codes, the works themselves are well-protected. On top of that, collections tend to have a wide range of works, as shown in Northern Kentucky’s recent addition of 66 Aileen Callahan drawings [4], and Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum. Quoted from his article Newcomb Art Museum receives grant to increase impact of collection, Matt Roberts, Senior Writer at Tulane University, states “The Newcomb art collections consist of art from ancient times to the present that supports teaching about the significance of art, crafts, and design in the United States. Some important works of art from the museum’s collection are located throughout the university’s uptown and downtown campuses. Some notable examples are paintings by Clementine Hunter and Ida Kohlmeyer and Tiffany Windows in the university chapel and Woodward Way.” These types of grants (and gifts) are commonplace within the art world especially in higher education. As noted, the collection is located throughout various locations on the Tulane campus, the spread of risk for a collection like this is quite helpful when it comes to underwriting accounts like this (we’ll ‘exclude’ the Catastrophe coverage bit for now…).


Looking further into any University collection, one question that comes to mind is- how do we know if the works in these massive collections are “legit”? This is key point in the insurance world as fraud isn’t a covered peril under a Fine Art policy. Appraisals and title insurance help address this, but something else to consider is provenance.


Auburn University, to the non-art person is known for its great education and even more for its incredible athletic tradition, particularly in football. What’s not well-known about the school is their art collection, and better yet, how they managed to get it.


There was a significant military surplus after World War II, and Auburn (then Alabama Polytechnic Institute) had a unique opportunity from the War Assets Administration to bid on some “odd” items. Charlotte Hendrix of the Auburn Magazine writes, “…war surplus auctions helped the bottom line, with items like tugboat cabins making fine lodging for ex-servicemen turned Plainsmen…let’s see what Uncle Sam has for me today…oil paintings? Barron [the war surplus agent] scanned the unusual offering…Catalog of 117 Oil and Watercolor Originals by Leading American Artists…ranked 10 of the artists in the collection as the best painters working in the U.S. [3]”.


Fast-forward to the auction of these works, Hendrix continues later, “Auburn submitted individual blind bids for all 117 paintings at fair value — a gamble for what the university would get. As one of the few to do so and follow the protocol correctly, Auburn initially won 34, with two more acquired when other bidders were disqualified… Looking again through the lens of history, Auburn’s set included many of the most highly prized modernists: Arthur Dove ($30), Georgia O’Keeffe ($50), John Marin ($100), Ben Shahn ($60), Romare Bearden ($6.25), Jacob Lawrence ($13.93) and Yasuo Kuniyoshi ($100). [3]” Moving ahead to 2003, (now) Auburn University opened its museum, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts, and nearly all of the 117 items were reunited when Auburn, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Georgia joined forces. “In 2013, the three institutions that successfully bid – Auburn, Oklahoma and Georgia – reunited 109 of the original 117 works for the first time in over half a century as the touring exhibition “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy.” The absent works are lost to the ages.[3]”


This is truly an incredible story- and you can read the full article in a link below- but as an underwriter, this does shine a light to how important provenance is. Since many of the artists whose works were acquired via auction were (and are) top American artists, how do we in the insurance world absolutely know these are real? On top of that, if the lost works do resurface, how do we know it’s truly those works? Even at an auction, the price point almost seems too good to be true (for the record- I am not at all discrediting anyone who was involved when the auction and storyline occurred).


Aubrey Catrone, Founder of Proper Provenance, states, “As the awareness and concern for provenance and clean title grows in the public eye, no collecting institution will be free from scrutiny. Across the market, provenance research and due diligence often fall into the category of cost/benefit or risk-reward analysis. In other words, is the item being acquired or donated worth paying for the research man-hours in relation to its market value? While this status quo is beginning to change, acquiring objects with questionable provenance can lead to financial or reputational complications down the line.”


Catrone continues, “In my work, I am witnessing an increased concern over provenance and clean title, particularly as more “horror stories” are reaching the mainstream media. This is not to say that I am witnessing a fear of acquisition, but more that there is an interest in mitigating risk before acquisition of resale…I believe that if we continue to imbue the art market with the importance of provenance research and its power to contribute to our understanding of art history, it will continue to grow in importance for art market actors, from dealers to private collectors to higher education collections.”


This may seem like doom-and-gloom, however not all is bad, and there are good people doing great things around provenance. The University of California-Los Angeles launched “Waystation Initiative, the first university-based effort in the U.S. that facilitates the ethical return of international cultural objects to their nations of origin or the communities from which they came. The initiative, which will include a certificate program for graduate students, focuses on finding homes for “orphaned” objects — those that collectors want to donate but that museums refuse to accept due to concerns that the objects may have been obtained illegally or unethically. [5]”


TL;DR – University collection are great risks, and do your underwriting due diligence!



Thank you for taking the time to read our latest post. If you would like to continue the conversation or catch up about Fine Art insurance in general, feel free to contact me at


Special thanks to our contributors:

Eric Fisher – Senior Vice President, Willis Towers Watson Fine Art. Eric is a Senior Vice President at WTW specializing in Fine Art insurance. He has excelled in Fine Art broking for roughly three decades at blue-chip Fine Art retail brokerages. He holds a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Science, both from the University of Pittsburgh. He is based in Gettysburg, PA.

Aubrey Catrone- Owner & Consultant, Proper Provenance. Aubrey is an international art historian, appraiser, and provenance researcher. Aubrey earned an MA in History of Art from University College London, specializing in the documented histories of art objects. With an art gallery and academic research background, Catrone founded Proper Provenance, LLC to provide her clients with the tools, not only to historically contextualize art, but also to shed light on attribution and legal title within the international art market. Catrone has researched artworks including paintings, artefacts, works on paper, prints, and sculptures spanning the fourth century B.C.E. to the twenty-first century C.E. She has appeared as a guest expert on the History Channel and published her scholarship in a variety of publications including RICS Journals and the Journal of Art Crime.


1.        Balance Partners, Trends and Hot Topics in Fine Art and Insurance, Ben Lee.

2.        Tulane University, Newcomb Art Museum receives grant to increase impact of collection, Matt Roberts.

3.        Auburn Magazine, How Auburn University’s modern art collection helped found a museum, Charlotte Hendrix

4.        NKY Tribune, Adding to NKU’s largest art collection depicting ‘Moby-Dick’ are 66 Aileen Callahan charcoal drawings

5.        University of California – Los Angeles Newsroom, UCLA Waystation Initiative returns ‘orphaned’ cultural objects to their rightful homes, Elizabeth Kivowitz.


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