Moving pictures: how precious artworks and artefacts are transported


Originally published by The Australian


How do you transport three Egyptian mummies across international borders? With the appropriate paperwork governing the movement of human remains, four armed guards, and the utmost care, as Adam Worrall, an almost 30-year veteran in the complex business of transporting, handling and installing art, found out some years ago.

Worrall, assistant director of exhibitions and collections at the National Gallery of Australia, had been tasked with returning three consignments of Egyptian artefacts from Melbourne to The Netherlands. As part of the stipulations of the loan agreement, there were to be two armed security guards keeping an eye on the first shipment of two pallets during the three-hour stopover at Hong Kong, and another two to shadow Worrall, the art courier, at all times.

“And so I had two armed security guards following me around with guns while I did my duty-free shopping in the terminal, and standing outside the door while I went for a quick shower. I couldn’t convince them otherwise.”

Worrall had further diplomatic entreaties to make with the cargo supervisor on the tarmac who, to his horror, had decided that his valuable shipment could not go on board as the overall load was deemed too heavy. He was told he would have to wait until his next two consignments arrived the next day and fly them all together. The problem was that, like the royal family, art collections rarely travel together, in case of misadventure. He won the battle; eight pallets of asparagus were offloaded to make way for his mummies (“I always wondered what happened to that asparagus in the heat…”).

For the National Gallery of Victoria’s head of conservation Michael Varcoe-Cocks, experiences include travelling with a painting in a freighter plane alongside a Melbourne Cup racehorse (as well as goats and “smelly livestock”). For the National Museum of Australia’s head registrar Sara Kelly, art courier dramas range from hand-carrying a rare Islamic pitcher back to Brunei, to following a truck loaded with valuable art in a car with armed guards on the 18-hour journey from Canberra to Queensland (security cars had to be changed at the state border due to laws governing the transportation of guns across state lines).

Earlier this year she transported a shipment of three Papunya drawings in the cargo hold of a plane from Melbourne to the Harvard Art Museums via Hong Kong and Anchorage, followed by a 2am offload in New York and then a four-hour truck ride in the snow to Boston (“you run on adrenalin”).

All three are part of a complex web of gallery and museum staff — couriers, registrars, curators, collections managers and conservators — at the heart of the art transportation and installation world. They work tirelessly behind the scenes — or “behind the Monet”, as the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Charm Watts puts it — in cultural institutions across the country, acting as the gatekeepers, installers and preservers of the art we see on the walls.

They are essentially micro-managing the safe passage of billions of dollars worth of the world’s cultural treasures as they move from point A to point B (and often to several other points on the alphabet in this age of the global blockbuster show). Their remit? Registration to transport to installation: some follow a blockbuster show around the world for years.

Last month Lindsey Breaks, project co-ordinator, international touring exhibitions, at the British Museum, supervised the installation of the BM/BBC show A History of the World in 100 Objects at the NMA in Canberra for the 11th time, “so I know the objects pretty well by now — they feel a bit like my children!”

A day’s work for these staff can involve everything from supervising choices of wrapping — from banana leaves to butcher’s paper — for the journey of fragile bark art on canoes from remote communities in Papua New Guinea to organising barges out of the Top End during the wet season, or trucks across the Nullarbor.

They also help organise sea freight, transport art in cargo holds alongside long-life milk and racehorses (art and horses are frequent fellow travellers in the air), organise import permits for works featuring bark, feathers and other organic material, treat mould and blast insects in giant freezers.

Duties can range from supervising the construction of a par silk-lined box for a dove in a giant Brett Whiteley panel, to dealing with jumpy Customs officials inquiring about excreted seeds in an elephant dung artwork by Chris Ofili or dead European honey bees in Tessa Farmer’s Swarm, to supervising a giant Mariko Mori artwork in a crate being wedged through the front door, thawing frozen replica animals by Chinese art superstar Cai Guo-Qiang, adapting a swimming pool cover roller to wrangle the doona in Ron Mueck’s giant In Bed installation, condition-reporting the 100 or so items, including vodka bottles and undies, for Tracey Emin’s My Bed, or negotiating the bespoke crating for Marie Antoinet­te’s harp with Parisian authorities.

Ron Mueck’s oversized In Bed posed challenges for installers.

Ron Mueck’s oversized In Bed posed challenges for installers.

Responsibilities often overlap: a conservator will also take on the role of courier, for example, if an artwork is of particularly high value, as was the case with the NMA’s transportation of the iconic Yumari painting by Uta Uta Tjangala, carefully rolled up around a tube, to the British Museum last year. Tasks can range from declining loan requests if an object is deemed too fragile — as in the case of Phar Lap’s heart at the NMA, requested for a show in New Zealand — to organising multiple consignments of art from abroad.

Why, incidentally, split art up? Worrall says that “the maximum amount that we can put in any one plane has traditionally been $300 million worth of art, that’s our unwritten policy. It’s a risk-management thing — $300m is two Van Gogh paintings, so that means that in a major show with lots of different works you have many separate flights — so for the Musee d’Orsay show we did, Masterpieces from Paris, that was at least $1.3 billion worth of art and so it came in five separate consignments.” Similarly, the works for Degas: A New Vision at the NGV were split over 16 shipments.

It’s a little known world, one with its own culture, codes, specialised skills and armoury; a world of data loggers, argon gas-filled cases, nitrile gloves (Review was presented with a bright purple pair by Kelly), and strategies for dealing with everything from frass — insect poo to the uninitiated — to hijacking attempts. It is governed, above all, by a need-to-know code of strict confidentiality agreements.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s replica animals at GOMA, Brisbane. Picture: Jeff Camden

Cai Guo-Qiang’s replica animals at GOMA, Brisbane. Picture: Jeff Camden

Review initially encountered resistance when requesting specific information, with many institutions citing security fears. As the MCA’s Watts says: “In the past, places like the NGV or NGA wanted to protect that information for safety, but we are now moving into the public realm and sharing information more. But, traditionally, registrars would be hesitant to talk.”

Their reticence is not surprising. Art is big business and moving it is a highly complex logistical endeavour conducted in a climate of strict anti-terrorism measures at airports and soaring insurance premiums and staging costs, under the gaze of vocal critics who believe art is moving too often, at heightened risk.

More than ever, paintings are crisscrossing the world on high-traffic circuits between the big art fairs, ­biennales and national galleries for blockbuster exhibitions. Despite sophisticated safety arrangements, priceless paintings do occasionally sustain damage — forklifts punch holes through them, they are dropped, gashed, accidently wet by sprinklers, even mislaid.

Australia is very much part of this global circuit, with recent blue-chip exhibitions such as the Degas show at the NGV bringing together 200 works from 67 separate lenders worldwide. Meanwhile, major international shows opening in the months ahead include a survey of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, a selection of Tate nudes including Rodin’s The Kiss, and Versailles: Treasures from the Palace.

Even our smaller galleries are experiencing increasingly high traffic: during the last financial year, more than 1000 works of art were borrowed from approximately 150 lenders for 12 exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia, a spokesperson said, while at the recent Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, staff at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art handled the transport of more than 750 works from various lenders.

The traffic is two-way — Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles left the country last month, bound for the Royal Academy of Arts in London in a carefully managed journey involving air ride shipping trucks and cushioned crates, transported in a process curators describe as “from nail to nail”. Carol Henry, chief executive of Art Exhibitions Australia, says: “Australian galleries are very, very keen to lend and be as helpful as possible, because we want to be known.”

Those on the front line, then, perform a vital service that is, according to the NMA’s director Mat Trinca, nerve-racking for all involved. “It absolutely makes your hair curl, what one needs to do to safeguard these collections … they are in all respects priceless. You have to remember that they are part of the cultural patrimony of a country and so you have to take the utmost care in seeing these objects come from abroad.”

Mat Trinca and the British Museum’s Belinda Crerar with the coffin of Shepenmehyt. Picture: Gary Ramage

Mat Trinca and the British Museum’s Belinda Crerar with the coffin of Shepenmehyt. Picture: Gary Ramage

The stakes are high, certainly, but “it is such a privileged position”, says Watts. “When I worked at the NGV, we were the ones who literally got to see the back of the Monet.”

Henry, whose organisation has helped bring to the country some of the biggest international art blockbusters seen in Australia, says things have come a long way since 1979, “when this country had no handling process, no professional understanding of what registration meant … We couldn’t really even participate in international exhibitions because nobody had the skills or experience.”

Recognising the problem, the Australia Council funded a retired registrar from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Betty Burnham, to train staff across the country for two years. The US, incidentally, has led the way in the field of registration and cataloguing due to expertise developed from receiving vast amounts of European art after World War II, while European museums were being repaired.

Henry became Burnham’s assistant for 18 months as Burnham worked “with the registrars, the handlers, cabinet-makers, trucking companies, all the services we needed to train in this country”. As a result, nowadays it’s all professionalism — as the business of moving highly valuable art needs to be, says Henry. Registrars, the gatekeepers of all art that enters and exits an institution, are at the heart of this process, handling all the paperwork to do with outgoing and incoming loans, including loan agreements and the highly detailed standard facility reports exchanged between museums dealing with everything from fire management and levels of invigilation — the term for those wary eyeballs that follow you around in galleries — to optimal climate control, light and humidity levels.

Often, they work with curators to assess if an artwork is robust enough to travel: Kelly says she was relieved when a request from London for the prized Batman land deed at the NMA was withdrawn, as she had concerns about transporting it in its argon gas-filled case.

Jude Savage, registrar of collections at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, says issues can range from checking whether “there are objects that require CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] documentation under legislation controlling the international movement of cultural heritage objects and objects made of parts of protected species” to insurance, which has “become more complex [and lengthy] in the current world climate, with organisations insisting on applying for ‘static’ terrorism cover”.

Henry says that sometimes, if it’s a very high-value loan, a lender might also send out a representative to physically check the premises, as was the case with thePicasso Masterpieces show at AGNSW in 2011 when the Musee National Picasso in Paris sent out a security officer to inspect the premises: as a result, “we had to spend $400,000 more on upgrading things”.

Once signed off, the physical machine grinds into gear. Crating is a specialist art. Curator Magda Carranza de Akle, who supervised the Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera show at AGNSW, says the crates are custom-built for each work, “with a double crate or a travelling frame which is then fitted to a special insulated crate” and constantly supervised by conservators from Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts under cultural heritage protection laws.

Mexican conservators supervised the packing of exhibits for Frida and Diego at AGNSW.

Mexican conservators supervised the packing of exhibits for Frida and Diego at AGNSW.

Worrall says paintings are double-crated while works less vulnerable to environmental issues, such as marble and stone, get single crates. He has been working closely with counterparts in Paris on protective measures for the 1.5-tonne marble Latona fountain from Versailles and the giant Sourches Family portrait, whose frame will be removed so it can be shipped at a 45 degree angle to fit in “through the largest door of a freighter plane with about 2cm to spare on either side”. Together, “they are the heaviest and largest items I’ve ever had to get into the country on a plane”.

“There is that massive relief,” he says, “when you open a box and you see the work has travelled beautifully.” He’s never found things in pieces but international colleagues have told him “horror stories” of breakage: “you know before you open it because you can hear something rattling”.

AGNSW curator Justin Paton will similarly have his work cut out overseeing the transport of one of the world’s most iconic works, Rodin’s The Kiss, for the gallery’sNude show next month. “The work is a huge challenge to transport, due chiefly to its being a large chunk of marble weighing more than three tonnes.

“The sculpture has never travelled beyond Europe before so the planning involved is intense. Every part of the journey is mapped in detail, from the store into trucks with special suspension and into a plane. It has a bespoke crate which incorporates wheels to keep movement as smooth as possible, and once the crate is placed for travel, further work goes into packing and support.

“Some of the most challenging route planning is at the Australian end of the trip, as the crate enters the Art Gallery of NSW and has to travel down corridors and around some tight corners before arriving in its planned location at the heart of the Nudeexhibition. Every turn is planned down to the exact degree and, because of the weight, floor loadings are also mapped in advance. Once here, the crate is removed and the work sits on an internal plinth. It will take four technicians a day to install it. The work can’t be raised, so that makes it difficult. And finally a kickboard will be placed around the work to protect it before the exhibition opens to a public very keen to see one of the world’s best-known sculptures.”

Rodin’s The Kiss is travelling to AGNSW for a show next month.

Rodin’s The Kiss is travelling to AGNSW for a show next month.

James Robinson from Scotland’s Burrell Colletion says special care was given to the two travelling Degas pastels lent to the NGV (the only ones assessed as robust enough to travel out of a collection of 14) because of the medium’s notoriously fragile properties: they travelled horizontally in temperature-controlled, shock-resistant crates designed to minimise vibration.

Breaks says for objects such as the coffin of Shepenmehyt, crates were “completely refurbished to contain air-conditioning cassettes, dataloggers tracking the environment all the way, and [they] are completely sealed to be airtight to buffer against particularly cold/wet/hot/dry conditions experienced on trucks, in airport sheds and at 30,000 feet”.

Hand-carrying art is a less common procedure, normally only done at the request of nervous lenders, says QAGOMA’s Amanda Pagliarino, who once couried a fragile wax bust on a domestic flight. For international flights, the costs can be staggering: Kelly had to withdraw a request for a loan from a London institution because it asked for two first-class tickets — one for the courier and the other for the painting (borrowers, incidentally, pay for all costs). Airline sponsors can be vital: AEA works with Singapore Airlines while the MCA has entered into a partnership with Tate Modern and Qantas.

The first rule of security is confidentiality, says Kelly: “We don’t talk about value, timing, no advance information to the media”. Similarly, Breaks says unlike borrowers in Russia and China, which can insist on security escorts, the British Museum prefers a low-key approach: unmarked trucks and crates and choosing to move “high-profile/high-value objects on a less obvious [route] in order to minimise the risk of tracking/hijacking”.

But sometimes it’s all blazing lights and whistles: Watts, who once accompanied a painting “with a half-million premium” on a truck to Wellington, was amazed to be greeted by an armada of black armoured cars and black-clad armed guards on arrival in Auckland. Kelly has employed armed security guards when travelling with art from France to Belgium to catch a Qantas flight, but prefers a low-key approach. Still, having no overt security can be a little nerve-racking. She remains grateful nothing happened when a truck she was on carrying iconic Boyd and Nolan works to the Hayward Gallery in London for the Angry Penguins show in 1988 stopped for a traffic accident — routes, whether by road, air, rail or sea, are meant to be as direct and continuous as possible.

On freight planes, horses and paintings, curiously, are often bedfellows: Varcoe-Cocks still recalls “the surprise on a particular horse handler’s face when they realised that the contents of each of my crates had higher value than their Melbourne Cup-winning horse”. Watts says the racing industry has been instrumental in “providing the space that artworks can travel in in the freighter … a vet almost always goes with the thoroughbreds so the airline is already set up to take a courier.”

Planning routes can often be a tricky business, says Breaks: “We found, for example, that Perth did not have a freight hub, so we had to fly the objects into the nearest freight hub — Melbourne — and then truck the objects across the Nullarbor for five days to Perth.”

Convincing international institutions about the necessity of this route can be difficult, says Savage. “But Perth’s remote location means road transport is part of everyday life for cultural institutions in Western Australia … so the couriers accompanying shipments have to have a sense of adventure and endurance to undertake the four-day journey, often after a 22-hour flight!”

Pagliarino says weather plays a big part: “If you need something during the wet season, you can’t send it by road, so the artwork might actually make its way out of [far north Queensland] on a barge around the top of Australia and down the coast.”

Because of security restrictions, couriers are no longer allowed on to the tarmac, so forwarding agents or Customs brokers are appointed to deal with the paperwork and permits, and to ensure the consignment is supervised at all times. Still, couriers make visual checks where possible: Kelly was hyper-alert about the location of her Papunya works when crates of powdered milk were being offloaded in Hong Kong; she has heard of an artist whose artworks, being sent privately, were unloaded and “didn’t get put on again. She lost everything.”

Artworks are usually shipped directly to quarantine-approved premises on site, and uncrated in the presence of Customs officials; if there is any sign of frass — powdery evidence of borer activity — crates are immediately wheeled into a giant freezer for some weeks at minus 28C or lower, Kelly says.

Preparing a statue for display in the NGV’s Degas blockbuster. Picture Jay Town

Preparing a statue for display in the NGV’s Degas blockbuster. Picture Jay Town

Pagliarino had to negotiate with the studio of Chinese artist Cai to make sure the 99 replica animals used in his landmark Heritage installation were not made out of straw as was intended, as it would contravene Australian quarantine laws. The obliging artist used polystyrene instead.

Carranza de Akle says according to standard international guidelines the works are rested for 24 hours before the crates can be opened, to allow temperature and humidity ranges to stabilise. Often, getting them into the gallery space can prove a drama: MCA’s Elizabeth Ann Macgregor recounts how a section of George Street had to be closed and a crane brought in to winch Anish Kapoor’s “long, thin” sculpture through a skylight.

Conditions within the gallery are strictly controlled: Varcoe-Cocks says that for the bronzes from Sao Paulo Museum of Art in the Degas show, the NGV provided “purpose-built display cases filled with dry air and moisture stabilising media hidden in the cases to deliver the desired conditions [as well as] environmental loggers so that we could send recordings back to Sao Paulo”. All this results in extraordinary staging costs — for the Degas show, Henry cites $8000 for a microclimate box alone.

Is art travelling too much? Some say yes — Macgregor blames the blockbuster show culture, in part. Despite stringent safety measures, art does occasionally get harmed in transit: witness the damage sustained by, for instance, the ancient Book of Kells en route from Ireland to WA in 2000 and the Lucio Fontana work travelling from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.

Sotheby’s London staff prepare a Van Gogh for display near a Rothko. Picture: Getty Images

Sotheby’s London staff prepare a Van Gogh for display near a Rothko. Picture: Getty Images

Robinson well understands the politics involved: the Burrell Collection has been in the news after the Scottish parliament in 2013 overturned a ban on foreign loans imposed by the bequest’s founder, shipping magnate William Burrell, despite heated opposition. Australia has been a test case for the works’ travelworthiness, and he is happy with the result.

“There is always a risk when you move things, but it is balanced by all the safeguards that are in place,” Robinson says.

Supporters and Partners