Art law Disasters Market USA

Axa sues Christie's storage services over Sandy damage

The insurer hopes to recoup its losses from insurance claims on an art collection amassed by the late cellist Gregor Piatigorsky

The art collection stored at Christie's Brooklyn warehouse once belonged to the late cellist Gregor Piatigorsky

Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services is being hit with a lawsuit in New York court alleging that its “gross negligence” during Superstorm Sandy damaged art collected by late cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn is a wholly owned subsidiary of Christie’s auction house that stores and protects art for outside clients.

The Piatigorsky collection, says the lawsuit, was left “languishing... on the ground floor of the warehouse” and Christie’s storage took “virtually no steps” to protect it.

The suit seeks $1.5m in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages. It was filed 15 August by Axa Art Insurance as subrogee of the Jacqueline Piatigorsky Revocable Trust and its trustees. As subrogee, Axa steps into the shoes of the injured parties to recoup its own loss from paying their art-insurance claims.

The court papers do not identify the damaged works and the Piatigorskys’ children did not respond to inquiries. Axa's lawyer Dennis Wade said: “The complaint speaks for itself.”

According to the complaint, the collection arrived at Christie's storage facility on 18 October 2012, and when Sandy struck New York a little over a week later, it was “still unprocessed by Christie’s staff, fully exposed on the ground floor”. The storage building is located next to the waterfront in an area that government authorities warned had the greatest risk of damage from a storm surge.

Three days before Sandy hit, the complaint says, Christie's storage “intentionally misrepresented the precautions taken” and it failed to take appropriate steps after the flooding, “leaving the collection exposed to water, high humidity, significant temperature fluctuations, and particulate matter”. Christie's storage also allegedly failed to inform clients of damage right away, which delayed restoration. In an email attached to the complaint, dated the day after the storm, Christie's storage reported that “staff has inspected our facility today and I can confirm that your property is safe and has experienced no damage”. Christie’s informed the Piatigorsky Trust of damage on 1 November, the complaint says.

A spokeswoman for Christie’s said Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services had not yet been served with court papers and declined to comment.

There have been reports of storm damage at the facility, but this appears to be the first lawsuit. Christie’s confirmed it has not received any notices of litigation related to Sandy damage. Future complaints could take a while to come forward "because of such things as the time it takes to assess damage, restore the works of art, and determine the loss in value”, says the New York art appraiser Victor Wiener.

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