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Warehouse Fire – Gillian Ayres et al. and Momart

One of the most significant cases in Great Britain in the recent years concerns the Momart Warehouse Fire, where a warehouse owned by Momart burned down in 2004 causing the destruction of a great amount of artworks by renowned British artists (the Brit Art movement). Following the filing of a class action, Momart decided to mediate the case and to settle by a secret payout.

 

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Citation: Anne Laure Bandle, Raphael Contel, Marc-André Renold, "Case Warehouse Fire – Gillian Ayres et al. and Momart", Platform ArThemis (http://unige.ch/art-adr), Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva, November 2018.

One of the most significant cases in Great Britain in the recent years concerns the Momart Warehouse Fire, where a warehouse owned by Momart burned down in 2004 causing the destruction of a great amount of artworks by renowned British artists (the Brit Art movement). Following the filing of a class action, Momart decided to mediate the case and to settle by a secret payout.
 

I. Chronology

  • May 2004: A warehouse of the Londoner art storage and handling company Momart caught fire during which a great number of contemporary artworks for an estimate value of £ 40 million were destroyed. Amongst them were 36 works by Damien Hirst, about 50 works by Patrick Heron and many others by artists such as Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili and Jake and Dinos Chapman.[1] The warehouse was located near industrial buildings housing explosive gas canisters.
  • June 2005: A group legal action was filed against Momart for negligent conduct before the English Commercial Court. Among the claimants were Gillian Ayres (the husband of Helen Chadwick), Shirley Conran and the family of Patrick Heron. According to the media, the petitioners asserted that Momart’s storage facilities were “wholly unsuitable for high-value fine art”[2] (for instance by lacking of a fire-detection system and sprinkler).
  • Summer 2005: All claims were settled by an agreement reached through mediation. The media reported that Momart “paid out tens of millions of pounds in damages to leading artists, collectors and insurance companies”.[3]
  • Catalogue of lost art and its owners[4] (the loss has been estimated at about £ 30-50 million): Gillian Ayres, artist - about eight of her own paintings; Estate of Helen Chadwick, artist - at least 14 works including “Philoxenia”, “Cyclops Cameo” and “Opal”; Shirley Conran, writer and collector - 12 paintings by her friend, Gillian Ayres; Crafts Council - more than 20 works including “Big Easy Volume” by Ron Arad, “Union” (ceramic) by Nicholas Rena and two ceramics by Alison Britton; Barry Flanagan, artist - nine of his own sculptures; Clio Heath - 40 paintings from the 1960s by her father, Adrian Heath; Katharine and Susanna Heron - about 50 major works by their father, Patrick Heron, including “14 discs”, “Vertical light”, “Harbour Window”, and “Girl in Harbour Room”; Damien Hirst, artist - 16 of his own works, including so-called “spin” and “butterfly paintings”, as well as works by other artists including Angus Fairhurst and Michael Joo; Victoria Miro Gallery - works by Chris Ofili including “Superhero Captain Shit”; Charles Saatchi, collector and gallery-owner - at least 100 of the destroyed works were in Charles Saatchi’s collection, including Jake and Dinos Chapman well-known “Hell”, Patrick Caulfield “Hedone’s”, Tracey Emin “The Last Thing I Said to You is Don’t Leave Me Here”, Sarah Lucas “Down”, Paula Rego “The Ambassador of Jesus”, Tim Noble and Sue Webster “Miss Understood and Mr Meanor”, Alex Katz “Winter Landscape”; Barry Townsley, collector - a Bill Woodrow and a Frank Stella; Leslie Waddington Gallery - around 150 works by artists from Patrick Heron to Barry Flanagan, including 20 of major significance;  London Royal Academy - six molds for old Roman statues.

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II. Dispute Resolution Process

Class action – Mediation – Settlement agreement

  • Several injured have received insurance payments without taking any personal action against the storage company Momart, such as art collector and co-founder of an advertising agency, Charles Saatchi. According to the Art Newspaper, he obtained a payment of about £ 10 million.
  • Others have, however, filed a class action (filed by the insurance company Hiscox, subrogated to the rights of its insureds, mostly artists) against Momart for negligent conduct. During civil proceedings at the English Commercial Court, all parties consented (without court order) to set up a mediation and to appoint a mediator. According to Jonathan Wood (lawyer representing Hiscox’s insureds against Momart), “there was no governmental or judicial involvement in that process, which was consensual”[5]. The mediation ultimately led to an agreement.

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III. Legal Issues

Breach of contract

  • Jonathan Wood, who represented 30 claimants including artists Gillian Ayres and Damien Hirst, reported that there were more than 50 companies and individuals involved in the lawsuit.[6] Momart was charged with a negligent claim for storing art in a warehouse close to flammable material.
  • Some items, such as the unsold estate of Helen Chadwick was not even insured, as the person responsible for handling the estate thought insurance was included in the storage service.
  • Interestingly, the family and attorney of Patrick Heron (50 of his works got lost in the fire) had not blamed Momart for what happened (at first). In fact, in an interview dated May 2004,[7] both underlined the company’s professionalism and its great responsiveness to clients and that there was always a risk when keeping a large amount of artworks in any one location.
  • A claim was also brought by Axa Art (represented by Bill Perry), subrogated to the rights of overall 23 insureds against Momart as the company insured several Momart customers, such as galleries and collectors including the Janet Botton Trust, Warren and Victoria Miro of the Victoria Miro Gallery and Saatchi & Saatchi Group Ltd.

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IV. Adopted Solution

Financial compensation

  • Both claims were settled by a mediated agreement. According to the press, Momart paid “tens of millions of pounds”[8] in damages to the aggrieved parties.

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V. Comment

  • Being one of the best-established storage and handling companies, with clients such as the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain and Buckingham Palace,[9] Momart most probably finally settled to save its great reputation. The intense press coverage regarding the fire has brought a great attention to Momart’s negligent conduct and mistake in choice of the right location for its warehouse.
  • The loss is particularly hard regarding artists who are no longer alive and whose artworks have been destroyed in great part. The loss however also has extensive material and financial consequences for living artists, as they have lost part of their collection for future exhibitions.
  • Confronted with the question of the possibility of recreating their work dating five or ten years back, artists assert that their confidence and skills have much evolved since then and may impede on their ability to reproduce the exact same work.[10] The artist Tracey Emin, whose work, the tent “Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995” was destroyed in the fire, was offered £ 1 million by the Saatchi Gallery – who owned the work – to remake the tent. The sum was the equivalent of the insurance payout Saatchi obtained for the work. According to the artist, “to recreate it would have been morally wrong” and “it wouldn’t have that emotional input to it”.[11]
  • While some voices mourn a great disaster for British contemporary art, others criticize the great attention that is paid to the fire, since these artworks were mostly “insignificant” creations.
  • From the perspective of Momart and the insurance companies, the fire probably happened at the worst possible time. Indeed, contemporary art was – prior to the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008 – greatly overpriced, setting records after record price at auction sales.

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VI. Sources

a. Bibliography

  • Wood, Jonathan. “Legal Issues in Fine Art Insurance – Warehousekeeper’s and Carrier’s Liability.” In Art and Insurance, Institute of Art and Law. Leicester: 1996.

b. Documents

  • E-mail of Jonathan Wood dated April 18, 2011.

c. Media

  • Wade, Mike. “Tracey Emin Tells Edinburgh she Rejected £ 1m Offer to Recreate Tent.” The Times, August 2, 2008. Accessed April 12, 2011, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article4446285.ece.
  • Laville, Sandra. “Secret Payouts worth Millions for Art Lost in Warehouse Fire.” The Guardian, January 15, 2007. Accessed April 11, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/jan/15/thebritartfire.arts.
  • Sandler, Linda, and James Lumley. “London Insurers, Artists Sue Momart Over 2004 Warehouse Fire.” Bloomberg, August 18, 2005. Accessed April 12, 2011. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=arVRfeGc04lY&refer=europe.
  • Jury, Louise. “Bill for Momart Art Blaze Surges to £ 60m.” The Independent, July 10, 2004. Accessed April 11, 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/bill-for-momart-art-blaze-surges-to-acircpound60m-552684.html.
  • Lyall, Sarah, and Carol Vogel. “Pangs of Loss to Art World after a Fire.” New York Times, May 28, 2004. Accessed April 12, 2011. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9407E5D6133EF93BA15756C0A9629C8B63.

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[1] Linda Sandler and James Lumley, “London Insurers, Artists Sue Momart Over 2004 Warehouse Fire”; Sarah Lyall and Carol Vogel, “Pangs of Loss to Art World after a Fire”.

[2] Sandra Laville, “Secret Payouts worth Millions for Art Lost in Warehouse Fire”.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reproduced in Louise Jury, “Bill for Momart Art Blaze Surges to £ 60m”.

[5] See e-mail of Jonathan Wood dated April 18, 2011.

[6] As reported in Sandler and Lumley, “London Insurers, Artists Sue Momart Over 2004 Warehouse Fire.”

[7] See Lyall and Vogel, “Pangs of Loss to Art World after a Fire.”

[8] Sandra Laville, “Secret Payouts worth Millions for Art Lost in Warehouse Fire”.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Louise Jury, “Bill for Momart Art Blaze Surges to £ 60m”.

[11] Mike Wade, “Tracey Emin Tells Edinburgh she Rejected £ 1m Offer to Recreate Tent”.

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