Country Roads March 2003

When Catastrophe Calls
There's no cure like prevention, but when prevention fails...

Robert H. Goldberg

Most of us believe that our treasured antiques and personal possessions are secure from damage within the walls of our homes. While that is usually true, under certain circumstances that crashing sound in the distance might be grandma's Meissen vase hitting the deck. From my observations during twenty-three years of appraising in Louisiana, danger to your precious and fragile antiques may come from any direction. For example, while preparing to move, my wife and I discovered that termites had quietly eaten a large hole in our living room Oriental rug. In another instance, during an estate appraisal in the French Quarter, I found that the voracious critters had migrated through the floor and devoured the complete pine interior of an 1850s rosewood washstand, in addition to the floor beneath it. Apparently the dense rosewood was unappetizing to the termites' palates.

Homeowners usually consider thefts and fires as the main threats to their possessions. Although they are certainly the most devastating, the majority of our cases concerning property losses arise from other events. In one case several years ago, hailstones broke through a parlor window and demolished a collection of Oriental porcelain. And in another, water from a leaking pipe migrated downward into a valuable antique crystal chandelier, causing the metal fittings to rust and crack the glass. Even the garage can be a hazardous place to store valuable articles. That was evident when I was called upon to appraise a smashed antique desk, which met its demise in a collision with the family sedan.

But, of all the menaces to the heirlooms in your home, deliverymen and workmen can offer the greatest threats. The majority are careful and considerate, but there are some who are so intent on finishing the job that they inadvertently deliver a blitzkrieg to something precious. In one incident, a delivery driver knocked over a recently restored antique breakfast table, cracking the top. Pottery took flight in an antiques shop I during a delivery, when the careless deliveryman carrying a mirror bounced around the room as though he was in a pinball machine. Tradesman sometimes require supervision, as one client learned when a plumber making a repair in the bathroom knocked over an entire display cabinet containing her prized collection of crystal perfume bottles.

Moving to a new home, whether local or long distance, takes your possessions out of your sight and control, and exposes them to the greatest p,ossible risk. Your treasures are in the hands of people who do not recognize their sentimental or material value. It's just stuff to them. How can you protect yourself and your valuables? Choose your mover and packer carefully. Check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau. Ask about the company's experience transporting and storing antiques and request references. If you have any doubts, ask the local auction houses and major antiques dealers for the names of the shipping companies they use. Small firms that specialize in packing and transporting valuable furnishings do exist. If you decide to use one of these, get references from prior customers and make certain they carry the proper insurance. Most important, in every case, be on hand to observe the packing, loading, unloading and unpacking. Take nothing for granted. An owner who cares can prevent most problems.

If you need to store furnishings, make certain the storage area is climate controlled. Personally visit the site and make an inspection. Climate control is more than an ineffective air conditioner in an open room. And most important, make certain that you are insured for the full replacement value of your transported or stored property. During an extensive home renovation, a client stored inherited family antiques and memorabilia in a "secure" storage unit. When the construction work was completed, the unit's contents had been stolen— a heartbreaking discovery.

Most of us will be fortunate enough to avoid one of these lurking calamities. But it's still a good idea to be prepared. The best way is to make a videotape or take photographs of your entire household contents. Besides the furniture and things that have recognizable intrinsic value like silver, china, crystal, art and antiques, you should document the clothes closets, draperies, lamps, appliances, computers and electronics. Those necessities of life really add up. Don't forget the contents of the garage or shed, for lawn equipment and tools are costly. And of course, keep the videotape or photos in a safe deposit box or other secure place. While you're in the preparedness mode, it's an excellent time to check with your insurance agent, to determine if your coverage is adequate. And if your insurance carrier requires it, have the most valuable articles properly appraised. This may seem like a lot of work, but if the unforeseen happens, believe me, your family will be grateful to you forever.

Robert H. Goldberg is an accredited senior member of the American Society of Appraisers from New Orleans, specializing in the appraisal of antiques and residential contents.


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