Diary of a collector – the insurance of Fine Art and Specie

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Diary of a collector – the insurance of Fine Art and Specie

Fine Art and Specie Insurance

Whether it’s the Mona Lisa or a stamp collection, the more unique the item, the more risky it is to insure. People & Partners Insurance CEO Jeffrey James Whittaker gives us an insight into his passion for collecting artifacts and explains the difficulties collectors face in protecting their prized possessions. 

Fine Art and Specie

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa

Most of us have a rudimentary view of what ‘Fine Art’ is but what on earth is ‘Specie’? Is it an alien, Big Foot, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster? Not quite. In insurance terms ‘Specie’ simply means ‘valuables’ like jewellery, gold bullion, antiquities, stamp collections, coins, cigarette cards, autographs etc. Indeed, anything that has a value with a ready market for sale. 

Many people collect things they think are beautiful or may be ‘worth something, some day’. It is these beautiful, and sometimes bizarre things that fall under this special insurance category. Having traveled the world thanks to an insurance career spanning more than half a century, I’ve become an avid collector and always found the insurance of ‘Specie’ to be one of the more intriguing forms of cover. 

I didn’t take much notice of ‘art’ or ‘Specie’ in school beyond the usual splashing of paint, modelling clay and collecting cheap stamps. However when I joined the Commercial Union Insurance Company (Sheffield branch) in 1966, I began to take an interest in both ‘Fine Art’ and ‘Specie’. Specie because I began earning my own money and got interested in watches, jewellery, coins and ‘old things’. I am still interested in those types of ‘Specie’ today.

Fine Art and Specie - Maasai Warriors

Maasai Warriors brandishing Rungus

My sales patch was the River Don Valley including all the steelworks from Sheffield to Doncaster, or “smogville” as my dad called it. To offset this dirty, dangerous sales patch, I was given all the Sheffield City Council premises, including the Sheffield Art Gallery, the Central Library and the Weston Park Museum – all fascinating places. The gentle quietness of the art gallery, library and museum gave me a deep, abiding interest and appreciation of paintings, sculptures, carvings, old books and bizarre objects. My personal collection includes a Dutch canon, spears, Japanese katanas and wakizashis. 

Africa, Indonesia and Papua

Among the native artifacts and weapons I’ve collected from Zambia and Kenya are ‘rungus’ and mojos (fertility symbols). ‘Throwing rungus’ are used for hunting game but in a battle scenario, when you’re holding a shield, the larger rungus are very effective weapons. The gnarled root is filled with a resin which hardens until it’s like iron. If that gets effectively thrown at you, it will probably kill you. My son still has one in his collection and donated one rungu to the Western Park Museum in Sheffield. 


An example of a Maasai Rungu

Also in my son’s collection, is a fertility mojo from Zambia. It was a carving of an old man with a staff, and seems to have been particularly effective. My son put it on display, but after he soon had two more kids, his wife decided to cover it up! I’ve still got an ebony family totem from the Papua Province of Indonesia (formerly Irian Jaya) in my house, but now that I’m 71 and my wife is 69, we’re hoping we don’t have to worry about having any more kids! Of course we still like waving the totem at people when they visit.

I’ve also got a blowgun with a spear attached, collected from Kalimantan in East Borneo. I brought it back with me on a canoe and then a plane to Jakarta. Just in case anyone is ‘interested’ in my collection, they should know the blowgun is still in fine working condition!

Insuring collectible items

Of course, I’m not the only one fascinated by artifacts and collectibles. My collection is just one of millions around the world. All these ‘valuables’ can be insured, whether they’re housed in museums, galleries, libraries, shops, or in private collections.

Fine Art and Specie - the Katana

Japanese Katana

The special cover needed is usually on an ‘All risks’ basis with stipulations such as security precautions or alarms, and on an ‘agreed value’ basis, as it is almost impossible to value some old famous works of art or collectables. The only sure way of valuing an item is at the time of an auction, and while on that subject, don’t forget the auctioneers who need to insure them whilst in their care, custody and control.

Insurance of Fine Art and Specie can be very expensive, and not every insurer is willing to look at this kind of risk. The Lloyds Market has always been a prime market for this class and they also have an excellent team of Risk Surveyors and claims experts for the trickier cases. These specialists work very closely with the police, especially on thefts and heists.

Jewellers Block

A good example of cover created for Specie is ‘Jewellers Block’. Jewellery shops and classic watch shops usually have an extremely valuable and therefore risky stock, but insurers do not like to only insure individual shops, which can’t bring enough premium in the case of a large loss. Insurers therefore prefer to write this class only when they have a good ‘Block’ of shops and businesses. For example, in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, many shops and premises are insured with a panel of insurers arranged in one large ‘Block’ in order to get the best terms. 

The insurance of Fine Art & Species is proof that anything can be insured, regardless of how bizarre the items is or how difficult it is to value. Whether it’s a traditional Maasai weapon or millions of dollars worth of designer watches, where there’s a risk, there’s the ability to insure it. 

Jeffrey James Whittaker has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the insurance industry, working in high-profile roles in the UK, Africa, Australia and South-East Asia. He has worked on numerous ‘Mega Projects’ like sky trains, subway systems, hydro-electric dams and various oil/gas projects. Jeff is a Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute (London), a Chartered Insurer, and currently Vice Chairman of the Insurance Association of Cambodia (IAC).

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