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The Most Valuable Things Lost to Fire

Fire is terrifying and devastating at the best of times. For all the good it’s done mankind, it’s never been all that easy to control, especially when it starts unintentionally or maliciously. We do our best to prepare for fire and we have tools and techniques to stop it quickly, but the road to the fiery depths of hell is paved with good intentions and sometimes the destruction is staggering. That’s the thing about fire. It doesn’t care what anything is worth, it’ll destroy it all the same. It just so happens that sometimes the value of what’s lost is astronomical. 

10. A Banksy

Most of us who are not in the art world probably could name a number of the historical greats like Picasso and Michelangelo and Monet. But when we get closer to the present, knowledge of big name artists tends to wane a bit. In fact, there’s a good chance most people are only going to be able to name a small handful at most. And of all the modern artists, you could argue none is as famous as Banksy. 

To this day, no one is entirely sure who Banksy is. Rumors abound, of course, but nothing confirmed. Famous for his street art, he’s been around since the 1990s and he’s definitely made a reputation. An original Banksy that the artist shredded on purpose sold for over $25 million in 2021. 

Shredded art can at least be reassembled, but burned art has less appeal. In March 2021 another Banksy was set ablaze. The piece had originally sold for the relatively bargain basement price of $95,000. Then it was burned by the buyers on purpose, on camera. A digital version of the painting was then sold as an NFT for $380,000. 

So was the painting worth $95,000 or was it worth $380,000? It probably doesn’t matter anymore, since only the NFT is left.

9. Fox Film Vault

movie

In 1937, Fox Studios lost the bulk of their silent film archive to fire. Film used to be produced on what was known as nitrate film; cellulose that had been treated with potassium nitrate and sulfuric acid. It made for very high quality film, but it was highly volatile and tended to burst into flames when it got too warm. And the problem with nitrate film was that it burned hot and was incredibly hard to put out, too. If it started, it was going to keep burning. It produces its own oxygen while it burns, so you can keep it burning, even underwater.

Fox Studios had kept the bulk of their old films in an archive that had not been properly ventilated. Once they caught fire, nearly every silent film they’d produced from 1932 and earlier was lost. Hundreds of thousands of feet of film were destroyed and one person lost their life in the blaze, while others were injured. They pegged the value of what was lost at around $200,000 at the time. In today’s money, that’s about $3.8 million, not to mention the historical value of many films that were never seen again. 

8. $100 Million in Jim Beam

jim beam 1

Keeping inventory in a warehouse always seems like a good idea right until it isn’t. Jim Beam, makers of world famous bourbon, probably never anticipated that their Kentucky bourbon warehouse was going to catch fire back in 2019. And even if they had planned for it, odds are no one predicted it was going to result in the loss of 45,000 barrels of hooch.

The fire started late at night in the facility where the company aged their bourbon. As you know, alcohol and fire get along a little too well and the resulting fire burned with such fury firefighters were all but helpless against it. It was so hot it melted the lights on the firetrucks when they parked nearby. 

About nine million liters of bourbon was lost, most of it burned, but a massive quantity also ran out into the Kentucky River as well. Losses were pegged at around $100 million. 

7. $400 Million Worth of Hash

hashish

Hash is meant to be smoked, so burning some doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. However, hash is generally smoked in manageable doses for personal use rather than in massive piles in an effort to escape law enforcement. 

Back in 2013, smugglers off the coast of Malta were carrying 30 tons of hash. Hash is a gummy substance that most folks refer to as resin. It’s made when you squeeze it out of certain glands found in marijuana plants and is usually formed into blocks afterward. Thirty tons of it would have had a street value of around $400 million.

The crew of the ship was 30 miles offshore when they realized Italian authorities were on the way to meet them. Unable to think of a less stunning escape plan, the crew set their stash ablaze. 

6. $1.2 Million in Art From the Louvre

louvre

The Louvre in France is arguably the most famous museum in the world. It’s the place where the Mona Lisa hangs, after all. Along with the Eiffel Tower, it’s the place to visit in Paris. And if you added up the value of all the art held inside, it’d be worth $45.5 billion

You’d think that the people who run the museum would be pretty cautious about where their art goes and how it’s treated – and they probably are – but sometimes things still slip through the cracks, mostly unintentionally. After all, how could anyone at the Louvre have known that the art they loaned to the Maritime Museum on the island of Tatihou was going to go up in flames?

Because museums are all about art appreciation, it’s not unheard of for them to loan pieces to other museums where they can be enjoyed by new art appreciators. Three such paintings, one by Alexandre Casati and two by anonymous Dutch painters, were destroyed when the Maritime Museum caught fire after a lightning strike, along with about 200 of the museum’s own works. 

5. Millions of Dollars Worth of Rare Cars

ferrari

Some people like to collect comic books, others collect decorative spoons. And for a certain group of people, collecting the most rare and expensive cars on earth helps to pass the time. That’s what someone was doing in the quaintly named village of Over Peover in the UK, where they had managed to build a collection that included rare cars from Aston Martin, McLaren, Porsche, Lamborghini and Ferrari. In fact, one of the cars was an exceptionally rare Ferrari LaFerrari that was worth around $1.6 million alone. Only 499 of the cars were ever made. You can find some on sale today for nearly $4 million.

More significant than the fact there are cars that are worth more than most people will make in their lifetime is the fact someone else burned them all to ash. The collection was stored near a barn and there were 80 rare vehicles in total held in two buildings. Their loss was no accident either, as someone set the fire on purpose. 

Reports said that one vehicle, which was not identified, was worth $4 million alone. No word on whether anyone was ever caught for the arson or the total value of the cars lost, but if there were 80 of them including things like a rare Jaguar XJ220 and an Aston Martin Zagato, it’s safe to assume the total loss was in the tens of millions. 

4. A $20 Million Pair of Yachts

Given their proximity to water, it’s almost ironic how dangerous fire can be on a boat. But any serious boater will tell you, fire’s the last thing you want to see at sea. Just ask whoever owned the pair of $20 million yachts that burned in 2019. 

The fire was called the biggest fire loss in Ft. Lauderdale history by the fire battalion chief, and it’s no wonder. The two yachts were docked for some repairs and the first started on one before spreading to the other. The first was a massive 161 foot long vessel, while the second was 106 feet in length. Officials think it started in the larger vessel, valued at somewhere north of $16 million by itself, and then spread to the other, which just had the misfortune of being docked in the same place. 

Speculation was that the fire might have been arson, some kind of insurance scam, but that was not the case. Surveillance footage confirmed that the fire was just an accident, exacerbated by high winds. 

3. The Chateau de Triomphe

fire

The housing market is almost impossible to understand. The same house on one side of the country could cost 10 times more than it might cost on the other side. You can get a nice three bedroom house for the same price as a one bedroom apartment sometimes. It’s just nonsense. But there is one hard and fast rule you can count on when it comes to determining house values: if a house has a name, it’s worth a lot of money. Case in point, the Chateau de Triomphe in Dallas, Texas.

Built on 10 acres, the mansion was owned by a man who made his fortune in international mining. The 75,000 square foot property was meant to be an investment that the owner bought before it was even finished. He planned to pay for the remaining construction and then sell it. The mansion was listed for sale at $44.9 million.

Thanks to an electrostatic air cleaner sparking to life around some paint and solvent fumes in the house, the entire thing burned to the ground in 2003. This resulted in a lawsuit because there was no firebreak in the attic and the sprinkler system was allegedly poorly designed. 

2. The UMG Catalog

vinyl

Sometimes a fire can destroy things in a way that causes a layered loss. The financial cost is one part of it, but there can also be a loss of that uniqueness of the thing destroyed. If it’s the contents of a building like furniture and appliances, that can be devastating, but it’s generally replaceable. When Universal Music lost a massive portion of their music catalog, that had not just a financial toll but a cultural and historical one. 

In 2008, a fire destroyed an enormous archive of musical master recordings. These were the original and more perfect and clear recordings of the music of tens of thousands of musicians.

The problem with this story is that Universal has refused to be clear about what happened, even more than a decade later. The New York Times initially reported that as much as 175,000 archived items were destroyed. The manager of the vault claimed as many as 500,000 tracks were lost. Universal quickly countered that by saying nothing of the sort happened and that they had backups of almost everything lost. They changed their story several times, settling on “significant” damage, but not as much as the Times reported. At one point they claimed only 22 masters were destroyed. That’s not so bad, right?

Universal claimed in insurance filings and lawsuits that upwards of 17,000 artists lost recordings in the fire. They were continually evasive over naming who and what was lost. Instead, they’ve suggested that those were just “potentially” lost assets. And then they finally identified 19 artists who lost material, including Beck, Nirvana, and Bryan Adams, among others.

It’s hard to say how many things were definitely destroyed since lawsuits are still going to this day and Universal has been less than transparent. Whatever the case, there were definitely some historical tracks as well as other recordings, including speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. that were lost and can never be reproduced. 

1. The Library of Alexandria

The library of Alexandria is famous for being a repository of historical knowledge, and arguably the greatest library in history. So the loss of the information it must have held represents a loss of books and documents and information that holds value far beyond money. No doubt the things held within would have been worth a monetary fortune as well, if it had survived. But it was not meant to be, and so the library was burned. The real question is, which burning did the most damage? Because people really hated that library.

The library managed to last far longer than many people realize – it was around for about 1,000 years. That’s probably older than most libraries will ever get. And in that time it was ransacked, looted, and burned several times. The most famous burning was probably at the hands of Julius Caesar. 

Back in 48 BC, Caesar came to Alexandria and was met with resistance by the Egyptians. Caesar opted to burn the fleet in the harbor to teach them a lesson and that fire spread through the city, burning about 10% of the library. 

Fast forward about 400 years and Theophilus converted the Temple of Serapis to a Christian church. A large quantity of the library’s books were held in the temple and were then burned as a result. 

By 640, Caliph Umar took Alexandria, and it’s said they used the books of the library to fuel the fires of the bathhouses, burning them for six straight months

Needless to say, regardless of who burned the most of the library over the course of several hundred years, it’s clear a lot of unique and one of a kind works would have been lost forever.

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