Kenny Schachter on the Fire That Ravaged His Home and Art
A work from a 2004 Kenny Scharf show was destroyed.
Thursday evening, January 5, two bottles into a business dinner, my wife Ilona phoned to say that our London house was on fire. She assured me that everyone was fine (our four sons, ranging from 14 to 20 were in town), but that perhaps my blood pressure would be better served if I didn’t return home for the evening. I didn’t take that as an encouraging sign.
Before the taxi could reach my destination, I was waived down by the pack of firemen from the fleet of trucks instructing us the street was closed. When I mentioned it was my residence, they radioed that the “key-holder” had arrived but wouldn’t grant me access. I frantically asked where Ilona was before finding her ensconced in the back of a ladder truck. It was like a scene from a boxed-set drama series. There were onlookers, hoses snaking from the street into the front door, and a firefighter on a cherry picker spraying away into the bedroom of Sage, my youngest child.
Blocked from entry, I raced around the back of the premises only to discover my two oldest kids, Adrian and Kai, with a pack of their friends hanging out as if they were at a celebratory weenie roast. I won’t say my reaction was the most measured, nor will I address the question of whether a TV console went flying through the air. But admittedly, it wasn’t pretty.
As their mates scurried like a pack of rats, my kids joined me in a talk with the fire chief; it turns out that Sage has a nose for scented candles, the flame of one of which inadvertently caught the bedding when he went out for a bite. (I may look into surgically curbing his apparently overexcited olfactory sense.) The ruin of his room was as mindboggling as it was complete.
While Sage was being questioned, the chief asked me if I’d consent to being filmed and interviewed by a journalist doing a documentary on the department. Has the world truly gone amok? Have the Trumps and Kardashians overturned the sanity of the universe? Do Martians have to put up with this? As much of a media hound as I am, I (kind of) politely demurred.
Oh, right, and I am an avid dealer and hoarder of a wide variety of stuff with a maximalist sensibility that would send Calvin Klein’s architect, John Pawson, to an early grave. The contaminated, toxic water that impregnated the entire shell of the house was almost worse than the roasting of the space.
As a collector of anything, above all else, you are charged with a duty of care to ensure the preservation of the objects you own. After a flooding incident, some 20 years ago, I made an artwork called Water Damage (Euro Blaster), which comprised a computer print-out of a Gerhard Richter painting on vinyl and a euphemistically titled American power washer product, which formed a continuous fountain violently splashing against the “painting.”
The following morning, I awoke—clad in my suit from the night before—to the all-encompassing smell of burnt. You have no idea how it lodges in your nose for days. It’s not so much the singed material but a stench that stays with you…forever, probably. And several text messages from Adrian and Kai telling me that they’d never speak to me again after I embarrassed them in front of their friends. I surveyed the damage and realized how utterly lucky (relatively speaking) we’d been.
In all, 10 works were affected, many of them paintings that had the backs of their frames soaked through. One painting was charred (a Keith Coventry depiction of crack pipes, funny enough), another was smoked (a Richard Woods on wood), and yet another canvas was simply incinerated (a Kenny Scharf). The last one wasn’t the seemingly obligatory Scharf in every collector’s kids room, but the result of an amazing show we did together in the West Village in New York.
In 2004, when Kenny Scharf had largely fallen out of favor in the mainstream art world, he executed an extraordinary show via his missing-in-action former LA gallerist Patrick Painter. The show was called SchaBlobz, and the larger than life dealer, in more ways than one (he’s rotund), was hardly amused by my lackadaisical lighting of the exhibit and stormed out of the space. There was a wall painting that didn’t survive the temporarily rented gallery space like the stunning painting that is now forever lost.
Also, damaged in the fire were a group of Peter Hujar photographs from an exhibition staged on a rusted boat on the New York Piers in the 1970s, an area of particular resonance with Hujar. Thankfully, the images of transvestites, the New York skyline, and the Italian catacombs of Palermo, which were so influential to the works of his then boyfriend Paul Thek, were already in such a state of disrepair that a little further water damage surely couldn’t do much more harm.
While taking stock of the devastation—the walls and ceilings still had water dripping from them—the doorbell rang. It was the Evening Standard newspaper calling. The last time a reporter from that paper came knocking was back in February 2012, less than 24 hours after the opening of the show that I curated with Ilona and my boys. The exhibition, titled “Friends & Family,” featured the work of emerging and established artists commingled with the work of my kids’ school pals (when my kids used to communicate with me).
A “friend” inadvertently knocked a pedestal over with a bronze Tracey Emin sculpture contained in a small glass box. Despite the broken container, the art remained unharmed, but the headline glared: “Break-dancer: party girl sends Emin art flying.” From there, news of the occurrence was reported from BBC Radio to Pakistan’s Daily Times. My kids were elated to be involved in the notorious controversy of the dad who handed over the reins of his exhibition space to his raving children. All I had intended to do was encourage positivity and productiveness.
Back to the heat of the fire: After alerting the insurance brokers, we put a plan into action that included contractors, asbestos investigators, drying and dehumidification specialists, and art conservators. This reconnaissance lasted straight through the weekend. On top of the experts, the brokers stopped by armed with a bottle of booze—only in the UK. Or were they playing and plying me so that I’d be grateful and obsequious rather than combative and inclined to fight for the full extent of my rights? Though I’ve been assured there is unquestionable coverage under my homeowners policy, I was led to believe it’s at issue by the insurance company. Nearly a week after the event, I have yet to have final confirmation.
Taking a walk along the Thames to clear my mind, I had a call from a Goldman Sachs alumni/art collector asking if I’d suffered a fire. Having thought I’d kept the Evening Standard at bay, I wondered how he’d known. It turns out his childhood acquaintance, a “loss assessor,” found out about my incident either from live audio streams of the fire department radio, a local neighborhood paper which reported, “Valuable art work rescued after candle left unattended in bedroom started fire which damaged converted loft,” or another source. I said I’d speak to the insurance claim adjuster-adjuster to hear what he had to say about the fiasco.
This was not so much an ambulance chaser as an ash sniffer—try saying that 10 times fast, preferably outside of the earshot of strangers. How the adjuster-adjuster found me less than 48 hours after the blaze is an art form in itself. Although it was a little disingenuous when he asked if everyone was okay, he’s been invaluable and worth twice his rates (4-6 percent of gross reimbursement). Should you, god forbid, experience such a catastrophe, it behooves you to liaise with an intermediary between you and your insurance company (your interests are not entirely aligned).
Then things got worse. (Imagine that.) I’d advise you not to bet on the lottery numbers I’d just picked. I was informed that when I moved a chunk of art to a storage facility, the insurance for the pieces that remained at my house, and they are legion, inadvertently fell outside the scope of my coverage due to oversight. Though only one painting, miraculously, was scorched and a handful of others sustained negligible damage, I was left naked on that front. Another useful piece of info I can impart is that these things are negotiable. Even something as basic as coverage (when it’s all but nonexistent) is based on your relationship with your broker and insurer. In the face of the prospect of fires, free ports are the best thing that ever happened to art.
The moisture mappers—they use their digital divining rods to ascertain where fluids have amassed—installed machines throughout the house that have been whirring 24/7 since, sucking damp out of the walls and ceilings; they’re droning as I type. If ever there was an impetus to fix up the bathroom after 25 years, I believe this is it.
Through it all, my kids were disconcertingly nonplussed, which drove me to distraction. One of the monsters posted a social media video with the caption: “My crib is on for (sic),” as the house burned, resembling an outdoor fry-up, with the licks of the flames still reaching. I love and trust my Sage, and this is no indictment, but his candle in the wind was at best carelessness. The Evening Standard won’t stop calling; you’d think our blaze rivaled the Great London Fire of 1666.
I came home from a meeting today and there was another fire truck parked in front of my house. I felt like swiftly retreating. They were merely there to follow up, retrieving gear left behind, adding smoke detectors (thankfully we had them, please check now that you do too!), and asking if anyone smoked cigarettes in the family. I was glad I had an alibi at Harry’s Bar last Thursday night.
Back in May of 2015, I participated in a debate at the Royal Institution entitled, “Do we care? Should we care? Issues surrounding the conservation of contemporary art,” with none other than Robert Hiscox, contemporary art collector and Honorary President of Hiscox, my insurance company. In fact, all participants in our major mishap have been beyond exemplary; especially the firemen (and women). And they barely made me feel like a criminal, which was typically the case with insurance claims past.
Ilona related that going up the stairs, upon being alerted to the fire, she encountered a force and fury the extent of which she couldn’t articulate. This, to me, sounded like a Bill Viola video in super slow motion. I am happy to report that my ubiquitous, dragging-on-the-floor polyester Adidas track pants, left on some furniture in our bedroom, withstood the incident with unparalleled resilience. My grief has become resignation. But I’d still appreciate it if at least some of the art dealer gallows humor directed at me could actually be funny at this stage. Through it all, I can hear Zaha’s thundering voice imploring me to send my kids to boarding school. She might have just been right all along. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. Speaking of which, this email literally just hit my inbox:
We met last Thursday whilst we were filming the London Fire Brigade as they dealt with the fire at your house. I hope you’re as well as can be in the circumstances.
As I mentioned on Thursday, we are following the work of the LFB for a three part documentary series for ITV 1. We have been filming a number of fire stations across London, including Battersea, who were one of the stations that helped put out the fire at your house. The series will highlight the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of a firefighter. And more broadly, will show just how important a strong fire service is to the nation.
The series also aims to reflect the tremendous impact a fire can have on peoples’ lives. It would be great to get your reflections on what happened last week. We are filming in Battersea again on Sunday afternoon and would love to do a short interview with you if it is convenient.
We haven’t slept in the house since and will be reimbursed for alternative measures until the restoration work is complete. On a more positive note, I can for the first time officially announce that I will present my (undamaged) classic car collection in an exhibit at Design Miami in Basel, Switzerland during Art Basel this June! But you might just find me sleeping in the back of one of them.
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.