It may be ‘famous for insuring jewellery’, as its website loudly proclaims – but that’s not all the good people at TH March deal with.
The brokerage was founded in 1887 and has always specialised in looking after the needs of the jewellery industry. It has offices in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Sevenoaks and national service centre in Yelverton in Devon.
But alongside the retail jewellers which form the bedrock of its business, TH March’s Commercial department also provides specialist cover for around 50 museums across the UK.
Venetia Morrison, the department’s assistant manager, told Insurance Business
the company’s museum client base is a legacy left by a former executive who, thanks to some personal contacts, started to build the book around 10 years ago before moving on. The business stayed with the firm, which now insures around 50 institutions, from large city museums to small centres staffed by volunteers open only a couple of days per week.
“It’s not something that we’ve actively marketed in the past,” said Morrison. “Most of the museum clients appreciate professional, friendly service, and they understand the importance of having insurance. But when it comes to exhibits and inventories, they can find that a little bit daunting because it can be quite a mammoth task when it comes to how to value an item.”
Valuation of the items to be covered can be a real challenge - things tend to end up in museums because they are old and rare, are not generally available on the open market and are very often impossible to replace. Insurers generally require policyholders to provide detailed inventories, which need to be updated regularly as collections grow through acquisition or loans, with values being agreed.
Morrison said: “Some of the museums are so niche – we have one which specialises in Guatemalan art, and it’s things like that you’re not really going to be able to replace easily.”
It is a world where brokers really can add value to the client, museums’ unique requirements mean TH March’s experience in the sector puts them in a good position to capitalise.
“When you’re dealing with clients with something so unique and special, a broker is always best-placed to advise,” Morrison explained. “Different insurers have different opinions - some want everything put on the inventory, others are more relaxed and will allow the client to group together certain things. They may have a postcard collection and each one is worth £10-15 but they may have 10,000 of them so trying to itemise that individually would be a little bit unnecessary. We know which insurer is best placed for each risk.”
Providing cover for irreplaceable and/or fragile antiquities out on public display must lead to some eye-watering claims from TH March’s museum clients, right? Not a bit of it, says Morrison. “They’re all quite good – they don’t tend to claim! We’ve had a couple of water damage claims which have been quite large. One involved guttering – water was coming in and paintings were hanging on the wall - all the paintings on that side were affected. That was a maintenance issue and the insurers did look to place an excess on it until such time as everything was repaired - sometimes these museums are council-run and the client may have to jump through a few hoops before they can get on with the repairs. But we haven’t had anything too awful.”
The low claim frequency may partly explain why Morrison experiences few problems placing the risks her clients seek to cover, with a number of specialist insurers on hand to write policies.
“We’ve got good relationships with Ecclesiastical
, Axa Art and Hiscox
,” Morrison said. “They’re quite happy to provide cover for museums, and who we use just depends on the value of the exhibits. We feel more comfortable with Axa when we have huge, multi-million pound risks because they are global and they have so many experts in-house. Ecclesiastical
are good when it comes to heritage items and the listed building side of things – some of these museums are housed in old properties. Hiscox
are the up-and-coming new guys who are quite happy to get their teeth into most of it but we probably tend to use them more for new, modern art gallery set-ups. But they’re all quite willing to help so we don’t often have a problem placing a risk, although sometimes we do have slight problems when it comes to exhibits in transit. If you’re getting high-value pieces coming across from China some insurers want them sent by air but if they’re too big they have to come by sea and the insurers can be a bit uneasy about that – if they’re brittle items and they’re coming by sea the chances of something happening to them is greater. It can be a stumbling block but more often than not we get it sorted.”
While dealing with museums is never going to supersede TH March’s core business, it’s a worthwhile niche and one Morrison is happy to retain. She said: “Business has stayed steady – you don’t tend to have many new museum insurance enquiries but our clients are loyal and I feel we’re trusted by them.”
Morrison admits her experience has made her see museum exhibits in a different light. What might have offered a little cultural nourishment, or respite from the rain, on a typical British Bank holiday, can now bring about a sense of awe at the value of the artefact in front of her eyes.
“Some things are frighteningly expensive,” she said. “I continue to be surprised with the values of some items and often wonder how it’s value comes to be – what makes one artist’s work more attractive than another? Especially when you’re talking millions of pounds!”