Behind the scenes: Protecting invaluable art pieces during exhibitions

Art exhibition
Some art pieces are seasoned travellers, but the challenges of securing the safety of a Caravaggio or a Raphael painting during transportation and exhibition are massive: Loan agreements, insurance, packing, shipping, handling, installation – all these tasks are complex, expensive and delicate.

Behind every exhibition is an intricate logistical web that requires attention to detail, expertise and experience since these valuable objects are most at risk when they move. The process involves a number of specialised, highly skilled individuals including conservators, exhibition organisers, and registrars who need to work closely together. Nevertheless, mishaps occur from time to time.

The critical role of the registrar

The registrar gives testimony of the uniqueness of each work and has all-encompassing knowledge of it. The lending museum instructs them to first manage the operations related to the loan, and thereafter check the work during the entire stay including supervising protection and transport activities. This is the only way to ensure safety, both during the exhibition and when everything is dismantled and the art works return home. The exhibition organiser will work with the registrar and follow their recommendations regarding conservation, information on previous restorations or any other critical information.

Risk mitigation during transportation

The borrower usually pays for insurance and shipping. The process normally starts when the art pieces are collected from storage. Some museums have fireproof security doors guarded by fingerprint-sensitive locks to secure objects after they’ve been called up from deep storage in order to be packed up and sent out. The technical specification of buildings, safes and strongrooms are sometimes even higher than required by insurers.

The packaging

Museums use wooden cases painted in specific colours to make identification easier. They contain multiple layers of cushioning foam insulation. Bubblewrap can leave indentations even on dry paint. Lenders will specify a stable temperature for display. The aim is to keep the amount of time a crate remains outside of a gallery to a minimum. 
The artwork must be moved or stored in the most comfortable of conditions and the climatic conditions must be guaranteed. For high-value artworks, humidity should be kept between 50 and 60%. The boxes inside the crates are made of material that keeps constant climate in terms of temperature and humidity. A device is usually fixed inside the crate that measures the humidity, temperature and every possible shock that the work could theoretically suffer. So-called climate meters are keys that are inserted into every crate, calibrated to the required values, from which the key measures each variation. 

Shock absorption is also crucial and can be achieved by applying vulcanised rubber. The most high-tech cases have in-built shock monitors as well as tracking devices. Further, vehicles transporting the art are often equipped with devices that ensure total protection during the journey for example through air suspension.

Usually, climate-controlled trucks transfer the art piece to the host museum. If an overnight stop is required, a secure, climate-controlled fine art warehouse may need to be booked en route.

Techniques to ensure the safety of art pieces during transportation have a long history. Already in 1963 when the Mona Lisa went to the US, its case was designed to float, should the liner ferrying it across the Atlantic go down.

The role of the courier

Art on loan often travels with a courier, ideally a conservator who knows the specific needs of the art piece. During the pandemic, exceptions had to be made as individuals were sometimes barred from travelling, but the condition of the art piece were still regularly checked during travel. 

During normal times, a courier stays with a specific art piece from the moment it is collected to the moment it goes on to the wall in another museum, independently of the distance of the new location. Unless physically impossible, couriers need to stick with the artefact directly or with the crate it is travelling throughout the journey. Usually, couriers join the crate at the museum as it is loaded on to a secure van for onward transport. Smaller items such as books or manuscripts can be taken on as hand luggage, although this will require documentation and probably lengthy questioning at security. Moreover, precious objects will need their own first-class seat as they wouldn’t be safe in the overhead locker.

If an artwork travels as air freight the courier will normally arrive at the airport at least four or five hours in advance and monitor the crate while it’s lifted into the belly of the aircraft. Preferably, the precious freight will be booked on a regular passenger flight so that the courier can travel with it. Alternatively, the art piece needs to be transported on a freight plane while the courier travels separately.

To make the journey as short as possible and reduce any risks, shippers usually request “must-ride” status for their artworks. Nevertheless, it can still be trumped by higher-priority cargo such as live animals. 

There are firms specialised in shipping museum-grade art. Works often travel by road with armed guards either in the truck or following in a chase car. 

Despite all these precautions, accidents do occur. In 2010, a courier lost a portrait by the 19th-century French artist Jean Baptiste Camille Corot with an estimated value of $1.4 million while drunk in a New York hotel bar. Thankfully, it turned up a few weeks later.

Risk mitigation during exhibition

Many works of art need time to recover after long journeys. For this reason, they are usually brought into the galleries 24 hours ahead, to acclimatise before unpacking. It requires experience and special skills to remove a picture, fix a frame and place an artwork on a wall. The wall must be painted at least 72 hours before an important painting can rest on it.

Artworks often require special attention. When the painting of Pope Leo X arrived at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from Florence for a Raphael exhibition celebrating the painter’s 500 years’ death anniversary, officials of the Uffizi Gallery had to intervene since the work travelled separated from the frame, in different packaging. The frame had to be rearranged according to a strict and very detailed procedure. In addition, the technicians of a specialized company came from Bari to clean the cover glass of the painting - the only company deemed capable of carrying out such an operation since the glass is very special to guarantee 98% transparency.

The problem with light

Light is a major risk factor for drawings on paper. When works are exposed to light they end up absorbing it in such quantities as to trigger a process of deterioration. It’s ultraviolet light and therefore natural light that constitutes the greatest problem. However, even a spotlight which does not emit ultraviolet light must never exceed 25 watts and emit no heat if placed close to a drawing to illuminate it.

The climate issue

Work on paper must be kept in environments that remain strictly around 55% humidity and 18 degrees centigrade and sensors constantly check for any thermo-climatic variations. 

Certain works should not be exposed to light more than 100 days per year as that increases the risk of damage considerably. Finally, of course, there are the inevitable smoke and fire detectors. 

Safeguarding the art piece

Special devices make sure that if any corner of a painting’s frame does not adhere perfectly to the wall, an alarm gets triggered. Sensors will also activate a signal if a visitor violates the minimum distance to the work, a task that was performed by rope cordon barriers in the past. Further, a network of video cameras captures every movement which can be monitored and analysed in real time. 

Risks cannot be completely eliminated

Fine-art shipping is expensive, specialised and technically challenging work. Old, modern and contemporary masterpieces are fragile and making them travel carries risk and may shorten its life. Equally, the premises where an exhibition takes place are important for the owners of the art work.

Lenders will therefore always ask the organisers for the Facility Report, a technical document providing the characteristics of the place hosting the exhibition including information on the building, on access and means of unloading and unpacking, on the surveillance and intrusion detection systems, on the temperature and relative humidity parameters, on the fire prevention system in place, etc. The organisers must then obtain insurance coverage and ensure that the cover is both sufficient for the exhibition but also for the lender as well as being compliant with national rules.

Insurance companies often request an escort during transportation, sometimes armed although remote control systems can already guarantee a very high security. Micro-cameras can aim at each crate which allows the crew to keep them in sight and check them throughout a trip. Nevertheless, some experts believe that an escort for art work can be controversial as it attracts a lot of attention. Transits are often preferred to be discreet and details of vehicles and their travel itineraries kept secret. Escort vehicles may also be late or, when crossing international borders, the change of escort can cause delays. Continuity of travel without delays is often crucial to preserve the artwork and to meet the often tight time schedules.  

Since law enforcement agencies often do not have sufficient staff to deal with such escort tasks, many art dealers and museums resort to private supervisory companies which may not have the specialised training and experience.

And, accidents do happen occasionally. When the Mona Lisa travelled to the US a faulty fire sprinkler went off while the work was in storage at the Metropolitan museum in New York. It got damp, but fortunately, the paint surface was protected by glass.

In another case, an Anselm Kiefer painting was so massive that while 10 men were helping to unload it from a truck the wind got up and it nearly went over despite of the massive cases it was in.  

The risk increases exponentially for organisers of large exhibitions such as the one at the Scuderie del Quirinale, which Lockton has insured. Over two hundred works for the exhibition travelled from around the globe to the Scuderie del Quirinale, and each represented its own specific problem. 

Even though the number of exhibitions has multiplied in the last decades there is no standard procedure for the handling of invaluable art work. In the case of the Raphael exhibition, any precautions taken in preparation, during and after the exhibition met the highest standards although the pandemic has produced some additional challenges.

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