Through the eyes of most of us, the intricacies of the art world are seldom understood or rather misunderstood to be an elitist pursuit. It can be argued that art galleries do draw massive crowds queuing up to have a glimpse of famous art pieces like the Mona Lisa or The Starry Night, but beneath the veneer of fame and sparkle lie thousands of equally valuable fine art pieces that beckon virtually no interest from an average viewer.
This ignorance is even more pronounced in the context of art-related logistics. A casual visit to any major art museum will often bring us face to face with “No Entry: Installation in Progress” signs, beyond which men work tirelessly to set up valuable artwork secured by foam packaging and place them over gilded frames and in many cases, temperature-controlled tempered glass cases.
Behind every artwork hanging blithely on art gallery or museum walls, there are a plethora of logistical processes that help curators protect them from damage and theft – both when on display and when on the move to art exhibitions or auction houses.
Though the logistics processes of moving art around the world are akin to the movement of any other freight, the impossibly high cultural and financial costs associated with transporting fragile artwork make this affair highly risky and an endeavor that can afford zero tolerance to mistakes along the way.
Part of the value of such art has to do with exponentially growing art collectors’ interest in fine art. The global art industry today is worth around $68 billion, climbing 10% every year since 2008.
The clamor for art means that thousands of priceless artifacts are constantly shipped around the world, mostly between museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors. The value of the pieces being traded has roughly doubled since 2000, thanks mainly to the increased interest from the Asian markets, led by China.
Moving art pieces from one gallery to another is easier said than done. Curators who want to exhibit artwork on loan have to fly to the galleries that host them to negotiate terms and conditions – a futile attempt more often than not for curators hailing from smaller and lesser-known art houses. In the likelihood of a deal being struck, borrowing art houses will have to employ specialist art transport companies to help them move the pieces to their new destination.
The delicate nature of the art packing process
Before the art in question moves from its gallery, the art movers need to come to terms with the primary risks associated with shipping art – breakage, wear and tear, smudging and even environment-related damage like temperature changes, damp air and bright light. The fragility of the art warrants those moving the pieces to initially wrap them in acid-free tissue paper – done by skilled workmen wearing gloves, to prevent fingerprints and sweat from smudging the art piece.
Once the initial wrap is done, an added layer of plastic is used to cover the artwork, to prevent the percolation of moisture through the tissue paper. Several layers of plain cardboard are placed on either side of the piece, which is further reinforced with two pieces of corrugated cardboard, over which a tape is run to make sure it stays in place.
Bubble wrap can be used as a final touch, to give the piece a cushion, in case of movement shock. Once the art is safely secured, it is lowered into a crate that is custom-made and can snugly fit the wrapped piece.
However, it is also critical to make sure the artwork does not directly contact the bubble wrap; seemingly harmless, it can stick to the art and peel off a part of the pastel.
Lugging art across borders
Moving priceless artwork is usually left to the professional fine arts logistics companies like Momart and Artex that specialize in packing, transportation, storage and even clearing customs for the piece. Art galleries usually insist on a conservator accompanying the artwork at all times, to be certain that nothing untoward happens to the precious cargo while in transit.
The process starts at daybreak, when the crate is loaded onto a secure van, which then transports the object to the airport – in the case of it moving far away from its home base. If the art piece is extremely valuable, it usually travels in a first-class air ticket rather than being stowed away as luggage.
However, if the piece is not worth the price of a first-class ticket, art logistics workers make sure it is safely tucked in as air freight, while receivers await its arrival at the destination airport. Last-mile logistics involves another van that will take the artwork from the airport to its final destination. Depending on the value of the artwork in question, it can be accompanied by guard vehicles or armed guards that sit inside the truck to ascertain its safety.
Even with such extensive precautions, there have been instances where artwork and artifacts have borne the brunt of movement, mildly disintegrating along the journey. The Getty Institute, one of the world’s largest art organizations, has developed seismic mitigation cases lined by vulcanized rubber, an idea borrowed from its use in NASA’s space shuttles. The cases are said to survive high impact – a painting within one such crate can withstand the force equivalent to a 90-mph car crash.
Massive price tags of art logistics
Going by the exhaustive details that go into moving art, its logistics comes at a stifling cost. For instance, getting pricey artwork from Australia to the U.K. would set the receiver back by around $75,000.
This apart, art houses also have to contend with massive premiums that need to be paid to the insurance companies to cover the entirety of the loan period. In the U.K., commercial insurance agencies charge around $100,000 for a three-month period for artworks of famous artists.
Art logistics companies also have to move the art in absolute secrecy, with very few people knowing the exact coordinates of the object while on the road. The art crates are designed to be unassuming of its precious cargo, to make sure a random observer could never guess its contents.
To run a successful art exhibition is by no means easy, requiring art logistics companies to precisely monitor the condition of the artwork throughout its journey from its origin, to the time it is hung on the walls as an exhibit, and finally repacked to be sent to its next destination.
In the end, precious art becomes precious not because it is impossible to recreate, but because it captures the essence of a society that might be long lost to mankind. Art logistics, albeit expensive, is the only way such nuggets of cultural significance be made accessible to people far removed from the society it represents within its gilded frames.