Fine Art Shipping

Little known ways to safely transport your precious art collection

Rita Hamri

7 min

Art

Introduction

Art pieces have traveled around the globe for centuries. In 1504, when Michelangelo’s David was transported to the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, it took at least 40 men and a month to install the marble sculpture. In today’s globalised world where art travels long distances every quarter (e.g touring exhibition such as Frida Kahlo exhibition at V&A in London that is now presented at the Brooklyn Museum in NY), the expertise of shipping precious art collections at the speed of light is critical for the well-being of the industry. The shipping of large or/and valuable pieces has always been a jigsaw as it requires knowledge, agility and structure... “How to ship safely your precious art collection?”, you ask? Convelio’s got you covered with some insider tips... 

1- Packaging and condition for Art shipping 

During the whole value chain, plenty of small details need to be taken into account in order to avoid damaging the piece.

Soft - Packing 

Packing is an art, which differs depending on the material and size of each artwork that is being protected. Soft Packing is the most important step in the value chain in order to make sure that the art arrives in one piece. A bad soft packing will ruin the piece, e.g. a famous faux pas of soft packing would be the use of bubble wrap on art masterpieces leaving marks all over the painting and ruin it forever... Make sure that if you want to do it yourself you are aware of the do’s and don’ts! (link to our FAQ

Crating 

Think ahead…for crating a rule of thumb is to always think ahead to mitigate the risks - When the Mona Lisa went to the US in 1963, its case was designed to float, should the liner ferrying it across the Atlantic go down. Finding the proper crating center for your pieces is essential, since each crate is unique and adapted to the dimension, weight and typology of your piece. Furthermore, in addition to the safety of the piece, wood crating is under numerous regulations that needs to be taken seriously when considering international shipping (see here and here for more information) .

Temperature control

Temperature is an important one. Artworks might require special care with climate controlled trucks for transit or storage. To note, most cases are made of plywood, with multiple layers of cushioning foam insulation which increase the time it takes for the case to change temperature by 50%. To be fully transparent, assuring a constant temperature of around 20 degrees during shipping is nearly impossible, hence the goal is to minimise the amount of time the crate is out for carriers. 

Shocks 

Shock absorption is key and numerous technologies have been developed in order to mitigate it. For instance the Getty Institute in LA uses vulcanised rubber originally developed for space shuttle, and  the Tate technicians have attached accelerometers to fake paintings in crates to test their efficacy to shocks (they need to be toppled 17 times before any cracking evidence!). From their research they found that on average a painting can survive to a G-forces up to 50G (more than 140 kph car crash) when crated properly. 

2- Security in Art shipping: thievery and lost items

Getting a piece from A to B has more variables than one can imagine. Artworks are often priceless by their rarity, and therefore require rock-solid security. The logistics industry isn’t without risk.

There are two philosophies regarding rock-solid security. In most European countries and for museum-grade art, security is taken very seriously. Indeed, works will travel with bodyguards in armored vehicles. In Italy, you will even find police convoys, whereas in the UK, they prefer to keep the transport of valuable pieces low key - no one will know when the crown jewels are moving from the Tower of London, and the more discreet the crate is, the better. 

In order to avoid putting the pieces at risk, shippers will ensure that their crates spend less time around airports and public places. As the owner of the pieces, you should ask your shipping company for frequent updates and make sure that you have visibility on the value chain.

Furthermore, for the trip to be as smooth as possible, ensure that your shipping company has all the paperwork for customs purposes, the right contact for pick up and delivery and the proper shipping label. It is always in moments of administrative crisis that the piece is at risk in terms of traceability. 

3- Insurance for Art shipping

Better safe than sorry… Always take an insurance! It is a jungle out there and you never what could happen to your piece. Taking insurance is a relatively small cost to pay in order to have peace of mind. Of course, we at Convelio know that each piece is unique and that extra-care will be given as it is not similar as shipping an Xbox - but nevertheless, insurance is always an additional protection that will make your transport safer. Be curious and ask your shipping company their conditions of insurance. 

4- Speed of art transportation

With the number of art fairs, touring exhibitions or auction houses holding international sales growing exponentially, shipping art piece in a blink of an eye has become an industry standard. Indeed, for important exhibitions that are touring from one museum to another, artworks need to arrive on the right date which is crucial for the organisation (curation and installation to be done properly). Always ask for ETA to your shipping company and make sure you are aware of public holidays that might disrupt your shipment’s journey (read more here).

5- Price of art logistics

Shipping art is not cheap and needless… Indeed, the budget spent on shipping by organisation can rise quickly. With the new technology and new players, you will notice that the fine art logistics is becoming more and more transparent in their pricing. We developed an algorithm to provide instant quotes from Europe to more than 70 destinations (click here if you don’t believe us). 

6- Handling art & antique pieces

When a crate reaches its destination in the last part of the value chain, handlers take over. Important organisations normally have an in-house team, however many shipping companies now offer this service to their clients. What is it about? A handler takes care of manoeuvring the piece until its final spot by doing the final assemblage of the piece or simply position it correctly on the wall. It requires a savoir faire, grace, but also planning for instance to make sure that the painting can enter through the door of the collectors' home - otherwise it will require double handling, meaning taking the painting off the stretchers and rolling it up again. Of course the goal is to touch the piece the least possible in order to minimize the potential damages. We offer this service with a specialised team, so make sure  to mention it when booking your transport. 

7- Art restoration

Always have a list of restorers, just in case...Restoring an artwork is a science. It is extremely difficult and demands not only true expertise but also money. Ask for referrals from the gallery you bought your piece from or your fine art shipper, good restorers in the Art world are extremely rare and vary in relation to the piece (art, typology, material, price…). 

Conclusion

Every fine art transport is a masterpiece of precise timing and coordinated efforts. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or need assistance on shipping your valuable pieces! 

Fun facts 

Here is a list of key fun facts about unique art shipping stories : 

- Nikki de San Phalle’s papier mache sculpture is one of the most fragile art pieces to transport

- Damien hirst’s animal sculptures preserved in formaldehyde are known to leak and are very difficult to ship since they are considered as miscellaneous items.

- Hirst’s fly painting have a habit of shedding flies and is difficult to conserve and pack 

- Ai weiwei’s installation in the Royal academy involved 90 tonnes of steel rebar and required reinforcement of the floors

December 16, 2019

Rita Hamri