Tina Sullivan is very discreet about the freight she ships, given its high value and rarity. But there is little that is discreet about a 50-foot tall, 25-ton sculpture made out of two 18-wheel tanker trucks.
The sculpture in question is “Big Rig Jig” by the U.S. artist Mike Ross. Built for an arts festival in Nevada, the sculpture was on loan to a 2015 art fair in Europe. It was up to Sullivan, a vice president at freight forwarder and logistics provider Masterpiece International, to figure out how to get it there.
After having the sculpture dismantled, Sullivan scheduled Big Rig Jig to be shipped via ocean carrier from the East Coast as a last minute addition to the venue. So Sullivan had the nine pieces of Big Rig Jig loaded on four trucks. A team of relay drivers brought Big Rig Jig to the East Coast, where the pieces were then loaded onto a roll-on/roll-off ship, which carries vehicles, for a sailing to Europe.
“We had only about a day of leverage to get it where it needed to be,” Sullivan said. “We got it to the port just before the cut-off time.”
Masterpiece International is one of about 80 firms involved in fine arts logistics globally, according to industry trade group ARTIM. Fine arts handling is a small niche within the global logistics business, but it is one that presents a new challenge with each consignment.
“There is nothing typical in shipping art,” Sullivan said.
Museum exhibitions are the main driver of art logistics. Curators usually start planning an exhibit two years in advance. The museums then start raising funds to cover the logistics and display costs for the exhibit.
Masterpiece’s global agents will provide a quote for crating, transporting and insuring the artwork from the origin to the exhibit.
Sullivan said her firm will start organizing shipments about three months ahead of an exhibit with most of artwork arriving in a staggered fashion at the destination two to three weeks ahead of the actual opening. Many works require a day or two of acclimatization before being hung on a gallery wall.
Art handling is “nail-to-nail logistics,” Sullivan said. The jobs can range from “a couple of tiny pieces in a hand-carry to hundreds of paintings,” she added.
A big challenge in shipping art, especially globally, can be in the customs paperwork.
A New York museum is hosting an exhibit of rare guitars that belonged to famous musicians. But many of those guitars use Brazilian rosewood, which is banned by the U.S. for import unless it is certified by an international agency.
British artist Damien Hirst is known for works such as a dead shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde and prints using hundreds of dead butterflies. Those works can trigger violations of rules on the import of certain animal species.
An exhibit of items from a country such as Cuba or Iran might require clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Due to client confidentiality agreements, Sullivan declined to say whether Masterpiece International was involved in any of these exhibits.
While most works of art do not present those types of challenges, there is still the issue of packaging. A rare painting might be hung inside a custom-made box so that nothing will touch its surface. The boxes can cost between $2,000 to $3,000 and are discarded once the exhibit is done.
As this is a huge expense for museums dependent on fundraising, Masterpiece has introduced reusable crates from Turtle North America.
The only thing that might be typical in art handling is the mode of transportation. Almost all artwork travels via air freight. A courier from the lending museum or another agent will often accompany the work to ensure supervision during transit.
At times, Masterpiece will break up freight from one origin into separate shipments to ensure that an entire collection is not damaged or lost because of a plane crash or similar accident.
Only in instances of oversize pieces, such as Big Rig Jig, will Masterpiece tap ocean carriers. First- and final-mile delivery usually requires climate-controlled trucks.
Moving pieces between the two main U.S. museum markets – New York and Los Angeles – is a large part of the art logistics business, as is moving art works to and from Western Europe.
For Masterpiece and others, the growth in art logistics is coming from new museum hubs outside of North America and Europe. Likewise, smaller exhibits at commercial art fairs and small, private galleries are also providing new business for art handlers.
“Galleries and art fairs are the faster growing segments for us,” Sullivan said. “They don’t build a lot of new museums.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Big Rig Jig was originally scheduled to be moved out of the U.S. East Coast.