Carriers that provide coverage for rare, valuable items understand that it's ill-advised to assign appraisers who specialize in fine art or jewelry to assess the valuation of an expensive item outside their realm of expertise.Selecting the wrong appraiser can result in an inaccurate assessment-one that not only negatively impacts an insurer's risk exposure, but also can affect the price a policyholder pays for coverage.

Adding a greater degree of efficiency and specialization to the appraisal of high-end valuables was top of mind with Novato, Calif.-based Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. when the company launched a program in conjunction with the American Society of Appraisers (ASA), McLean, Va.

The online service-a co-branded Web site embossed with both Fireman's Fund and ASA logos-enables Fireman's Fund's network of 3,800 independent agents to quickly locate an ASA-accredited appraiser for their customers who need to insure a valuable possession.

"Agents that are serious about risk management and customer service will have a great deal of interest in this program," says Jack Devlin, director of vendor management for Fireman's Fund Insurance.

"Over the years, many independent agent have been forced to formulate their own list of appraisal specialists for policyholders," he says. "They mainly tap appraisers at the local level. Oftentimes, this limits their ability to find the right appraiser for the right valuable item."

Expert appraisers

Fireman's Fund, which has a significant stake in providing coverage for such high-end valuables as real estate, jewelry, art and antiques, approached ASA in 2003 about forming an alliance that would enhance the maintenance and preservation of appraisal standards.

For years, Fireman's Fund had been impressed with ASA's method of operation. "We knew we had to align with an appraiser group that had a solid footprint in this arena, and ASA has a reputation for a significant amount of discipline," states Devlin. Indeed, ASA has been regarded over the years as a premier trade group representing appraisers. ASA-accredited appraisers can evaluate any type of property-from a Lincoln penny to a chain of hotels. The group is the only society in the country with members in all disciplines of appraisal, and its members must adhere to a strict code of ethical conduct, which is vigorously enforced.

Moreover, ASA offers a robust registry to help affiliates find the appropriate appraiser for a particular item. Search capabilities are offered online and via a toll-free number.

One of the reasons that the group has gained a solid reputation is that its accreditation process is rigorous-accredited members invest an enormous amount of time, energy and expense to earn and maintain their status. As a result, ASA attracts members from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and 44 foreign countries, including Canada, Mexico, China and the Philippines.

Accreditation requires passing intensive examinations covering general valuation theory, technical expertise and principles of appraising.

Co-branded site

Before Fireman's approached the American Society of Appraisers, the carrier had performed focus group sessions and discovered that the need for a better appraiser "look-up" system had become a priority for both agents and policyholders, Devlin says.

Once Fireman's Fund decided that an alliance with ASA would be beneficial to its business, the two organizations agreed to develop co-branded site, which was designed and paid for by ASA. The Web site features a "Find An Appraisal Expert" system that identifies appraisers who have expertise handling personal property, gems and jewelry, automotive, fine arts and antiques.

Agents typically take a lead role in directly searching for appraisers for their customers. The site enables them to find news and information on care of paintings and antiques, framing fine art and moving and shipping art and antiques. Over time, the alliance is expected to provide homeowners access to ASA information.

"The information about ASA valuation professionals is now at the fingertips of agents and customers," states Ted Baker, ASA's executive vice president. "Through this alliance, Fireman's Fund agents and customers can learn how ASA-accredited appraisers are specialized professionals highly suited for insurance valuation."

The online program was actually inspired by another program formed between Fireman's Fund and ASA, known as the Connoisseur program. The program recruits specialty collectors to become members for the purpose of promoting best-practices appraisal of high-end items. The Connoisseur program attracts individual collectors such as museum curators, gallery owners and jewelers.

"We appeal to an upscale market; our customers are substantial collectors," Devlin says.

Fireman's Fund agents have also become members of the Connoisseur because it helps them become better versed at understanding the appraisal of high-end property.

Both companies realized the benefits of forging the alliance.

Certification issues

As Fireman's Fund examines the impact the co-branded Web site will have on its business, Devlin says that one of the troubling aspects of insuring valuable items over the years has been the inability to locate reputable appraisers.

"The appraiser industry is very fragmented, and regrettably there is very little regulatory control for becoming an appraiser," says Devlin, who oversees selection of vendors to align with the provider to improve its risk management and loss control position.

"But it's not just about certification. Even reputable appraisers are not geared to appraise items outside their area of specialization. These two factors lead to poor or inaccurate appraisals, with often the policyholder paying more than they should for coverage based on an inaccurate appraisal."

The program is widely centered on the acquisition side of insurance-primarily for individuals seeking a quote to insure a rare collectible item. In the future, Fireman's Fund is expected to provide functionality that supports the claims side of the business, where an appraiser might be needed to assess a lost or stolen item.

"I think that overall this program really offers a sense of brand awareness for Fireman's Fund," Devlin says.

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