Art: special procedures in the case of fire

Paintings, sculptures and objets d’art can be completely destroyed by fire. Fire causes damage, but so does a lack of protective measures… With this in mind, how can we limit damage and ensure the successful restoration of our heritage? Diane Maccury provides some answers.


The double loss affecting works of art: fire’s collateral damage

When a fire breaks out in a public or private place housing works of art, a whole range of damage is likely to affect the works, resulting directly or indirectly from the cause of the incident.

Take paintings for example. When the temperature rises inside a property and the air acidifies as the fire takes hold, the varnishes on some works may undergo a chemical reaction and start to deteriorate. In this case, these works should be removed by a specialist conservator who will reapply a new protective varnish once their restoration work is complete.

Similarly, some works may fall to the ground if their fixing systems are damaged by the fire. As a result, the canvas may be damaged or even torn depending on what it hit on its way down, its height and the angle of impact.

Frames may also show signs of damage and should be repaired by a specialist conservator chosen in accordance with the type of materials concerned, among others things.

Finally, without this list being exhaustive, damage can be caused by firefighters as they pass through the building (knocking over/bumping into the works).

When completing our initial assessment, we generally observe a “double loss”, namely damage caused by the flames or soot as well as by the water used by the firefighters. For some works, the damage may be irreparable. Of course, the damage incurred depends on the location of the works in relation to the origin of the fire.


Prevention and conservation measures: pre-incident report and emergency services training

The first conservation measures and restoration operations to be put in place depend on the type of works affected and the extent of the damage.

Let’s reconsider paintings. Damage can range from surface soot pollution to the discovery, in extreme cases, of the fully carbonised remains of the works.

Therefore, within the context of restoration after an incident, the removal of soot deposits from the pictorial layers, frames and the backs of paintings will be required at the very least. It should be noted that for the loss adjusters assigned to the case, as well as for the selected restorers, reports drawn up before the incident detailing the condition of the works are valuable working tools. They confirm the condition of the works prior to the fire, and even the existence of previous damage.


In conclusion, for both public and private places (when possible), a fire drill in real-life conditions remains the best way to anticipate the procedures to be put in place in the event of this type of incident. And because speed and caution do not always go hand in hand, all those present, including the firefighters, need to be made aware of how to handle these pieces in an emergency, as depending on the intensity and extent of the fire, the works may need to be evacuated.


Diane MACCURY, Specie Loss Adjuster

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