Florida’s Super-Rich Evacuate Their Art as Hurricane Ian Hits

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Over 2.5 million residents of coastal Florida are being advised to evacuate due to the threat posed by Hurricane Ian, a storm that has already left 1 million in Cuba without electricity and which hit the southwestern flank of the Sunshine State early Wednesday afternoon.

In anticipation of a Category 4 storm’s 130-mile-per-hour winds, residents scrambled to stack up sandbags and stockpile supplies. For a certain class of Florida resident, however, also at issue—and, in some cases, in need of evacuation—are their art collections, which can be valued in the multiple millions and are potentially vulnerable to being damaged by the hurricane’s destructive path.

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Generally, Florida’s super-rich and the galleries that cater to them are prepared for hurricane season (June through November) and know to store their prized works long before a threat like Ian looms, but in some cases, last-minute intervention is needed.

“We’ve brought some art in, specifically flatworks [paintings],” Susan McGregor, the founder and CEO of Bellissima Luxury & Fine Arts Services in Fort Lauderdale, told The Daily Beast Wednesday. McGregor says her company is also retained by a major art insurer to be part of their post-hurricane recovery response. Once it’s safe to get into homes that have sustained hurricane damage, Bellissima takes the art to storage or to a conservator on a case-by-case basis.

As Ian’s grown closer, Bellissima has been getting calls from other insurance companies trying to line up resources—art handlers, trucks—to collect art from Florida’s west coast for their insured clients, McGregor said.

“The problem with that is, you have to let the water recede, but then the priority will be the power companies, first responders, food, water, that kind of thing,” McGregor said. “So the access for companies like mine, just to go in to collect artworks is going to be delayed, which is going to create a problem for the art.”

“It reinforces the importance of the pre-storm plans, because after the storm, the conditions are so detrimental to the artwork,” McGregor said. “The humidity, you don’t have air conditioning, you have water damage—it’s just really, really bad for art.”

“We have a collection, and we basically just deinstalled as much as we could and put it into our bathrooms and rooms with no windows. We have big windows around our whole house,” Liz Dimmitt, a collector based in Belleair whose husband is an art dealer specializing in Old Masters, told The Daily Beast. Belleair, just west of Tampa on the Gulf coast, sits directly in the path of Ian.

“Things that are too big to deinstall we just wrapped up in plastic,” Dimmitt said, adding that the US Art shipping service is currently working to pick up objects from collectors to store them in their Orlando facility. (US Art evacuators were unavailable for comment.)

Art is generally stored with Bellissima throughout the entirety of hurricane season, McGregor said: “We bring the art in while the family is out of the residence for the summer season.” The cost for Bellissima’s pickup, storage and re-installation services depend on the size of the art collection, but in general, clients can expect to pay “several thousand dollars,” McGregor said.

For the last-minute evacuations they’ve done for Ian, which involved high-value art, McGregor told The Daily Beast, “we wouldn’t have time to construct crates. After the client tells us what type of art we need to pick up, we bring the proper materials to pack the work of art for safe transport in our trucks. Our trucks are also climate-controlled. Then we get [the art] into storage.”

“It’s so different this year,” McGregor added. “With Irma, the last hurricane, people were just wrapping these very expensive pieces in whatever they could find, and bringing it in for storage. With Ian, there has been more preparation. I think people took it seriously this year.”

On Instagram, Miami-based collector and real estate developer John Marquez posted Instagram stories of poolside art being hurricane-proofed while indulging in a large cigar. Marquez did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

“Anything that’s outside that’s not really battened down we don’t even put up until after hurricane season,” Beth Rudin DeWoody, a longtime curator, art collector, and mainstay of West Palm Beach, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “A lot of my art is in a warehouse that’s very secure, it’s a cement building, so I’m not really worried about that.”

In certain cases, drastic action is required, Thomas Burns, the Chief Operating Officer of Fortress Storage, told The Daily Beast.

“Clients register with us at the start of the hurricane season, and they’re given a priority number on a first-come-first-serve basis when they sign up for the evacuation program,” Burns told The Daily Beast. “We will come to the home and come up with a plan: which pieces do we need to be moving? Maybe crates need to be built for them. Sometimes we’ll construct a crate if the artwork can only be moved with a wooden crate. We’ll either store the crates at Fortress or at the residence.”

The time the art evacuation takes place depends on the client’s “location and proximity to Fortress,” Burns said. “If they’re on the barrier islands, we have to take the art earlier because the bridges can close. Then we determine if we’re evacuating the art based on a Tropical Storm Watch, Tropical Storm Warning, Hurricane Watch, or Hurricane Warning.”

“I’m still getting everything secure and organizing to be ready for Ian,” Ezra Johnson, an Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast Wednesday. “Fortunately we got some help. Another lucky thing is that my studio is pretty empty because of recent exhibitions, so what I have in there I’ll hang up high on the wall. I’m a little worried about flooding, but besides sandbags in the doorways, there’s not much else one can do. That’s pretty much it—I’m strapping down things outside so they can’t go flying and I’ve boarded up some areas to create safe rooms.”

“Currently, Pace Palm Beach is monitoring conditions of the storm,” Allison Raddock, the Director of Pace Gallery’s Palm Beach outpost, told The Daily Beast. “Since this is a mostly a seasonal community, collectors are only now starting to return slowly, and most have been prepared for hurricane weather since they left last April.”

“We tell people to take a lot of photographs of your home and document what you have if you’re going to evacuate,” Tony Fabrizio, Senior Public Relations Coordinator for Pinellas County, told The Daily Beast. “If it’s really valuable art or jewelry, it’s good to have other documentation and take that with you.”

On Wednesday, Tampa-based artist Walter Matthews was working to hurricane-proof the retirement home where he works full time. “My last few days have been focused on people and my cat, not art,” he told The Daily Beast.

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