The Fine Art of Transporting Art

July 10th, 2013 - How to Ship Fragile and Valuable Artworks

Transporting works of art such as paintings or sculptures can prove particularly challenging because of the need to minimize the risks of loss or damage.

“Fine art requires special handling,” says Robert Lafleur, fine art specialist at SDV in Montreal, Canada. “We have to take extra precautions and craft back-up plans to cover all eventualities.” That may mean spreading the cargo over two separate flights to reduce the risks of an accident, for example.

But it’s not just major incidents that make fine art vulnerable in transit. Even small bumps to a sculpture or canvas during loading can cause major damage to irreplaceable works worth millions of dollars.

Over the past ten years, SDV’s Canadian offices have developed a niche in the business of shipping fine art around the world, managing between four or five operations per year for museums in the Quebec and Vancouver regions.

Most recently, SDV was charged with transporting paintings and sculptures from 15 museums in Paris, France, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Petit Palais and the Musée Carnavalet. SDV transported the works to Quebec’s Musée de la Civilisation for its “Paris en Scene” exhibition of art from the Belle Epoque of 1889 to 1914.

SDV carried works including the oil painting “Portrait Sarah de Bernhardt” by French artist Georges Clairin as well as an 1899 Renault Type A car, the first model designed by Louis Renault, founder of the French manufacturer.

“We had just one month to transport 240 pieces,” says Lafleur. SDV booked three flights from Paris via Amsterdam to Toronto on Boeing 747s carrying both cargo and passengers since special couriers must accompany the cargo from origin to final destination. The couriers must also be present during the loading and off-loading of the aircraft pallets, Lafleur adds.

Paintings and sculptures are a tricky commodity to ship because of the high risk of damage, making packaging especially important.

For this reason, specialist companies normally package the works in the museums lending the art, Lafleur says. There are strict regulations. For example, fine art shipments must be carried in air-conditioned crates to avoid potentially harmful temperature changes.

Security is vital which is why a museum employee travels on the same plane as the works of art, Lafleur says. When SDV managed the transportation for a diamond exhibition seven years ago, for example, it needed to book two seats on the plane - one for the box containing the diamonds and the other for the person escorting the gems.

SDV also has staff on site at each stage of the journey. “We do everything we can to ensure that the crates are not in contact with the public,” Lafleur says. “But if that’s not possible the crates will be escorted by SDV employees, private employees or even by the police.”

In 2012, SDV transported artworks for the ‘Rome’ exhibition at Quebec’s Musée de la Civilisation. The works came from the Vatican and other museums in Italy and the shipments had to be escorted from New York and Toronto to Quebec City by police and private security escorts.

“Fine art is the ultimate example of precious cargo,” Lafleur says.

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