Andy @ Art Basel in Basel 2019. Enabled by AXA XL Art & Lifestyle

One of the highlights of the preview days of this year’s Art Basel in Basel 2019 was the visit to the AXA XL Art & Lifestyle booth in the Collectors Lounge and my exploration of Insurance, Art and Lifestyle with some of the key figures of AXA ART including Sylvie Gleises, CEO Continental Europe.

AXA ART is in a long-term partnership with Art Basel. Tell me a bit more about how this partnership started and what your principal aim in this partnership is.

SG: First of all and more generally speaking AXA ART is keen to be embedded in the art scene – this is part of our ecosystem. We don’t partner with a fair just for having our logo on the booth: we want to be perceived as an active player in the art scene. AXA ART is not only an insurance company but we are here to provide advice and services to our clients. An art fair like Art Basel is obviously a good way for us to meet our key partners which are art collectors, galleries and museum professionals – lots of museum directors come to art fairs.

Art Basel is the ideal place for us to meet the three types of clients that we have: private, commercial and institutional clients. Moreover, one of the defining characteristics of AXA ART is that we have art experts in our team, who are classically trained art historians. As a result, they have this distinctive combination of both art and insurance expertise. Being able to really intuit the passion of a client and understand the sector is what makes us different from our competitors. This combination is further strengthened by our vast connections in the art world.

As a result, it was natural for us to be partner of such an international fair, displaying really the most exquisite and distinguished modern and contemporary art. Our partnership began in 2006 and is a long-standing one. This long-term partnership reflects the values of AXA ART because we are long term partners to our clients as well. In addition, Art Basel offers the perfect positioning for us: we have this booth to welcome our business clients and end-clients. It’s also a way to showcase select works from the AXA Group corporate collection. So, what you see on this wall behind us is an artwork by Sam Francis from the Headquarters of the AXA Group in Paris. Exhibited on the other walls are a series of pictures by Günther Förg from the art collection AXA Konzern AG in Cologne.

A corporate art collection featuring works by such esteemed artists such as Sam Francis perfectly fits the quality of art fairs like Art Basel: it is important for us to show our clients that we understand their needs because we too are collectors.

You mentioned before, that institutions make up one of the client categories. Could you name any significant institutions or art collections you work with?

SG: Well, one of our principles is absolute discretion with regards to our clients and partners. As probably one of the largest insurance companies for exhibitions and museums in the world, we insure the temporary exhibitions of many of the large public museums, the permanent collections of private foundations and museums. Given that we have more than 50 years of experience, we are very well known by all the institutions. Furthermore, one of the characteristics, as mentioned before, is that we are here to stay. Our value proposition is to be longtime partners to the client. Especially for the museums, I think it’s crucial to know that we’re here for generations to follow.

Technologies and digital art: what are the new challenges in terms of ensuring the artworks?

SG: New technology in general has two implications. Because new technologies such as AI and blockchain will change to the way we work as an insurance company, allowing us to better know our clients and to better respond to their needs, it is set to have a strong impact on our value chain.

It will certainly also affect many other areas, ranging from underwriting to claims with more efficient automatized processes. Secondly, new technology will impact the art ecosystem as new apps emerge which help clients access more information on artists. While we do not use apps, we know that there are currently many being developed – either with information on artists or on galleries. It allows our clients to access information was beforehand withheld by galleries or art experts. I would call this a democratisation of information.

In addition, you have more online sales, meaning art platforms on which objects are traded. There are several ways of trading: for example platforms allowing galleries to sell their art to a pool of clients beyond their usual reach, or as a way to put artists and buyers in direct contact. So new technology leads to a disintermediation or a new multi-channel way of buying art.

As for digital art itself, it’s a big challenge for us because we were used to tracing and assessing art on the basis of having one unique piece of art that is material, that can be transported and cannot be replicated. With digital art now, this has changed. To be honest I don’t think that any insurance company at this stage is very well at ease with insuring digital art. However, it is clearly something that we need to focus on. Of course, the challenges are different: it’s not about transporting the art and about replicating. In the case of digital art, it’s more about the rights of the artist and how you keep the master who’s owning the master. So, it’s a whole new set of questions that we need to ask, a topic which is very interesting and challenging.

Where do you get the value of your artworks from? Are there any platforms you use for trends and changes in the pricing and how do you react to artists which are less liquid: which are not like there are fewer transactions and fewer sales?

SG: When the clients come to us they have two ways of ensuring their collection. The first is a Declared Value contract. Clients for example will ask to insure for the sum of one million. When there is a claim, proof has to be provided by the client in the form of evidence that they own the artwork in question and that its insurance value is in line with the value that makes sense. The second way is Agreed Value, referring to when a contract is underwritten and the client receives a list, description and expertise of the artwork and another expert provide a second opinion by confirming this expertise. We encourage our clients to insure using Agreed Value because once you do so upon signing a contract, there is no dispute in the case of a claim. In terms of valuation, we avoid valuing objects as to not create conflict of interest. It is important for the client to receive an independent expertise which we then assess whether it appears accurate.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in your career?

SG: That’s a difficult one. I think the best advice would be from a management perspective, I would like to refer to one of my former bosses, Henri de Castries. De Castries was chairman and CEO of AXA Group at that time, while I held the role of chief of staff.  He always said that as a manager, respect was fundamental: always treat your teams the same way you want to be treated. I think being a role model is important for management and leadership.

What do you like most about your role?

SG: I enjoy the leadership dimension connected to my role: AXA ART has been transforming itself in the past years and we now have a clear strategic directionality. What I enjoy most is to lead my team. My role is focused on Continental Europe, so essentially half of the company’s / 8 countries. It is satisfying and rewarding to see good results and profitable growth.

Moreover, the next challenge is how AXA deals with this integration of XL Group, an insurance group from the US, which was recently acquired by us. We’re currently in the middle of the integration and the big challenge is for us to further develop our market leadership by adding forces from XL, who has also fine art team. So, the combination will make us more relevant as a leader on the market.

So what is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

The biggest challenge I would say as a leader is change management. Nowadays, we live in a society where everyone has to adapt to organisations and people. Sometimes change management does not come naturally, so I think it’s the role of the leader to address the fears or issues related to security within their teams and to show them the way/provide much needed guidance. In my view, it is not possible for any organisation – AXA ART or any other organization for that matter – to claim it was better in the past and that it wants to stick with its old ways. Managing uncertainty is key for the leaders of tomorrow and they need to accompany the teams on the ground into that uncertainty by being a role model, by laying out a greater vision of what lies ahead.

Thank you very much, Sylvie.

Claims settlement at AXA ART

During the fair, I also chatted with Dorothee Hamm-Neumann, a specialist within the claims department at AXA ART in Cologne. Hamm -Neumann is an art historian who initially worked galleries before entering the art insurance business.

Andy Hermann meets Dorothee Hamm-Neumann
Andy Hermann meets Dorothee Hamm-Neumann

What is your role at AXA ART and where are you based?

DH: I am based in Cologne and the claims department is operated centrally out of Cologne for Germany. There’s a team of colleagues and we deal with building and household insurance. My specialization is art damages and theft. I will for example receive a picture from the sculpture or of an artwork and assess the damage. Together with the client we then discuss if it can be restored, if it’s worth restoring and if there’s a decrease in value. We then negotiate how to proceed further.

With larger damages, we have to look at the original work and then we assess on the spot, together with the client, what the goal of the whole project is and what the client wishes. It doesn’t make much sense to restore an artwork, only for it to turn out that the client does not want the artwork in its original state, that’s a problem. It essentially depends on the complexity of the damage: a small water damage of a paper work does not need my physical presence, whereas for larger damages it often makes sense for me to examine the extent in person. 

A unique external art warehouse

DH: The exciting thing is that there are many works for which we reimburse the sum, because of total damage. These objects are still available and we request them to be handed to us, because there is a possibility that they can still be restored. For the damaged artworks is that we have a large external art warehouse with special climate conditions, something unique in Germany. These artworks I store myself and once per year we host a charity auction, where a small number of these salvaged works are auctioned off to the employees of AXA.

So the warehouse is in Germany and artworks come from whole of Europe?

DH: Yes, although most come from Germany. I know that many damaged works also are displayed across our offices in Europe. We are currently doing this in the new office in Zurich which the colleagues recently moved to.

Is there a certain a case which was particularly significant?

DH: A standard case is a de Chirico painting which was handed over from Belgium. This museum-quality work was installed in the estate of a private collector couple. A demolition ball went through their wall and through the painting, resulting in a large whole in the work. When this happened many years ago, restoration techniques were less advanced as they are today, so a large missing part of the canvas was thrown away. It could still be fixed, however 1/3 would have to be recreated, meaning that it essentially would not be seen as a de Chirico anymore, but more like a cooperation between de Chirico and the restaurateur. However, we do not throw away these paintings, given the cultural significance they still hold. 

Thanks Dorothee for this interesting insight into your work.


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