Moving artworks around the world is a complex and costly process. Michael Festenstein advises on how it can be done carefully and cost-effectively.

Image of crates at Art14
Unpacking crates at Olympia for Art14 London

The whole process of moving a painting from one gallery to another can begin up to a year in advance, and certainly two or three months before an exhibition opens, with risk assessments and method statements penned long before the work even sees a crate.

Some of the paintings that are transported are priceless. However, financial value is not necessarily the primary drive behind the care taken and the money spent to keep a painting safe on a long journey. For small pieces, such as miniatures, small works on paper or sculptures, it may be possible to send them encased in a purpose-built box as ‘hand carry’ on a passenger jet. The work will have its own seat in business class (sometimes even two) and technicians board the plane to ensure it is properly strapped in. Larger pieces must travel in the hold but lack of height in the cabin can be a challenge. We have designed special crates that tilt the artwork at an angle if necessary, allowing them to travel on a passenger plane rather than as freight, which is often more expensive and fraught with problems. This is a way of saving the gallery both money and stress. Oversize items have no other option but to travel by freight and the big issue is that very few airports in the UK, including Heathrow, have the capacity to take large freight deliveries. So freight planes often land in Europe before cargo is sent by airline trucks to London, which is by no means ideal.

Airports pose two major challenges for the moving of art: dealing with forklift drivers and dealing with customs. Technicians will normally need to be on hand to ensure airport forklift drivers slow down and take more care, and then at customs where a mound of paperwork is required to navigate issues around VAT and duty. Many museums and galleries are registered in the government’s National Imports Relief Unit system and are exempt from paying VAT and duty on artworks imported to be displayed rather than sold. But even so the process can be complicated.

The work will have its own seat in business class (sometimes even two) and technicians board the plane to ensure it is properly strapped in

Having travelled by business class, the same luxury greets works of art on the road as they are transported in specially designed trucks to their destination. On-board CCTV allows couriers to monitor their cargo throughout the journey (they can even tune in remotely through a secure link). Loaded by specially trained technicians, the vehicles are equipped with air suspension to mitigate the damaging effects of vibration plus temperature, and humidity controls to keep the environment as close to a museum environment as possible.

So how can a gallery save costs when moving art around? Return loads and part loads are a good option, especially if there are no time restrictions on when an item is collected or delivered. For instance, if a consignment has been taken to Edinburgh from London, a truck may well be returning home empty − and a deal can be struck to use it for the opposite journey. The more flexible a gallery is, the lower costs are likely to be. If there is no deadline, items can be stored in a specialist warehouse and delivered when the truck is already due to go out.

A crate may be the safest way to transport artwork but it is also the most expensive. Not all items necessarily require crating and other options include:

  • A transit frame (t-frame) can be attached to the back of the painting and may be suitable if the journey is being made by truck rather than air. It secures the picture into a frame, preventing any damage to the front of the painting, and is then wrapped in polythene. The shocks and vibrations of a road journey can easily be transmitted straight to the painting if using this method, so it is vital to insist on using a truck with air suspension and with expert technicians on board to ensure its safety.
  • The least expensive method of packing is soft wrapping, which involves wrapping the frame in tissue, polythene or foam. Needless to say it requires careful handling.
  • For total safety, for particularly sensitive items, and for those with no budget restrictions, paintings can be placed in a t-frame and then inserted into a crate for extra protection.

A huge and all too common problem are delays. For international shipments the biggest delays can occur at customs, so having the correct documentation is absolutely vital − an experienced art shipper can make all the necessary arrangements. For small items that can be taken on a plane as hand-carry, this is a far quicker option than choosing to send it by road – and it is economical too. Insist on a transport partner that has satellite tracking systems in its trucks, meaning traffic jams can be avoided as well as being able to monitor the progress remotely for added security.

Understating the difficulty of a job can also cause delays when technicians arrive to move works of art or museum pieces. It is crucial to furnish movers with full details of what is being moved and where they are picking up from, and to know in advance if the pieces will need any special handling or need to be rehung when they are returned to their original destination.

Unfortunately some artworks do get damaged en route. A condition report should be made before an item travels and then again on arrival. Many museums and public galleries ask their conservation staff to write these reports as they are vital if a damage claim has to be made. Taking digital photos is a good idea too.

The cost of insuring some works of art is prohibitive, especially for public museums and galleries. So to enable loans to be made, the UK government can cover most of the risk under its UK Government Indemnity Scheme, provided the transport company used is registered as an expert mover. Other governments across the world have similar schemes.

Michael Festenstein is Special Projects Manager at Crown Fine Art.

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