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Freight Of All Kinds – No Typical Day When Moving Artworks


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 West Coast. But unfortunately it missed its sailing. So Sullivan had the nine pieces of Big Rig Jig loaded on four truck. 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. 

After missing the initial West Coast sailing, "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 60 firms globally involved in fine arts logistics. 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 biggest part of Masterpiece's business. Curators usually start planning an exhibit two years in advance, with what Sullivan calls their "dream list" of works to display. 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, Sullivan said.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art 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.

"It's a little atypical for customs broker to handle these items," Sullivan said.

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. 

Art handlers loading a painting into a Turtle Case. Photo: Masterpiece International

As this is a huge expense for museums dependent on fundraising, Masterpiece plans to introduce 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 accompany the work to ensure that it is not damaged in 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 – accounts for about one-fifth of Masterpiece's business. The largest part of the business, though, is moving works of art to and from Western Europe, accounting for about 60 percent of Masterpiece's business.

For Masterpiece and others, the growth in art logistics is coming from new museum hubs outside of North America and Europe. Saudi Arabia's national oil company opened the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a $1 billion offshoot of the Louvre opened in Abu Dhabi and  a museum in Beijing is exhibiting over 100 works by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso.

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."

Image Sourced from Pixabay

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