By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Superstorm Sandy slammed into New York City last October, much of abstract painter Ronnie Landfield's life's work lay submerged under 28 inches of water in his Manhattan studio, where he had lived and worked since 1969.
Landfield has restored the vast majority of his paintings. They were sprayed with Lysol and alcohol then dried and treated by conservation experts over many months.
His rent stabilized six-story building has been less fortunate. It was deemed uninhabitable as a result of flooding and Landfield will be kicked out of his studio in a month.
"I've never intended to retire. I was going to paint till I died," said Landfield, who estimates he lost several million dollars worth of art, if only a small fraction of his collection. "But I'm suddenly, for the moment, in forced retirement."
Like no other storm in modern memory, Sandy devastated New York after making landfall on October 29, 2012. Power was knocked out for days across lower Manhattan and mass transit ground to a halt. The historic storm killed at least 159 people, and damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes.
The Superstorm also dealt a heavy blow to the New York art world. Insured losses alone total between $400 million and $500 million, according to Jonathan Crystal, an executive at the Crystal & Co insurance brokerage.
Industry insiders say the total could be far higher after factoring in uninsured art, works still being restored and galleries that have not requested insurance payments.
Axa Art, a top art insurer, said it has paid out about $40 million dollars for thousands of damaged works.
Such was its impact on the New York art world specifically that many joked bitterly that the primary evacuation zone, known as "Zone A," was short for "Zone Art."
A FORCED RETIREMENT
In the fashionable Chelsea art district, on the western edge of Manhattan island with large industrial spaces ideal for showcasing art, scores of works were damaged. Studios in art hubs along the Brooklyn waterfront were laid to waste by surges of dirty water.
"It's one of the most traumatic things I've ever experienced," said Richard Desroche, a co-owner of CRG Gallery in Chelsea, which represents American and European artists.
On the morning after the storm, Desroche returned to the gallery to find the tide line five feet high on the wall and a "significant number of artworks" destroyed beyond repair.
Computers had to be replaced and the gallery's walls and flooring torn out. Three days later, mold began to form.
Around Chelsea, where work can be seen from modern artists like Chris Ofili and Anish Kapoor as well as old masters like Ellsworth Kelly and Willem de Kooning, owners of a dozen galleries declined to speak to a reporter about the storm.
Still, many now agree it could have been worse. A free workshop organized by the Museum of Modern Art allowed impacted artists to collect urgent advice from leading art conservators. Nearly all of the Chelsea galleries re-opened by January, and only a handful shut down.
John Cahill, a New York art law attorney, said he heard far fewer complaints from galleries about getting compensated by insurance companies than he did from home owners.
"It's like how you get better treatment at Tiffany's than Macy's. These are high net-worth people," said Cahill, who has worked with galleries hit by Sandy.
In the case of Landfield, his proximity to the Hudson River turned out to be a blessing, since the water that invaded his studio was relatively clean. Ready access to dry space - at a warehouse in Brooklyn, in a vacant apartment upstairs - allowed him to spread out hundreds of his paintings and avoid more damage.
"My gosh, I never saw so many paintings by one artist in one location," said painting conservator David Goist, who flew in from North Carolina to advise Landfield and other artists.
"You know, I've been here 45 years. I paint a lot," Landfield said as he sat in his packed-up studio across from a dozen cardboard boxes stacked with different sized paint jars. "It's the end of an era in my life, and hopefully the beginning of a new era."
(Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Andrew Hay)