In early February 1748, Baron Heinrich Jakob Häckel sent a small painting depicting the holy family in a landscape setting, plus a copperplate print of the same motif, to Landgrave Wilhelm VIII by postal carriage from Frankfurt am Main to Kassel. The baron requested an expert opinion from the landgrave on the painting, thought to be by Raphael. On February 6th, Landgrave Wilhelm replied: “I have… safely received the painting by Raphael which you sent to me, and the copper engraving thereof...I will now examine it even more closely and then send both items back at my own risk”. On February 25th, after completing his examination, Landgrave Wilhelm wrote: “I have packed it with the utmost care and dispatched it back to you without the slightest damage, so I do not wish to doubt that it will return in the same state”.
This correspondence includes some key words that play the same crucial role in today’s art transport as they did then. As the recipient, the landgrave confirmed that the painting was intact after its arrival in Kassel, and he announced that he would return it at his own risk. When so doing, he noted that the painting had been carefully packed and had left its temporary abode without any damage.
The points recorded in this rudimentary written record of 1748 are also the most important points for today’s art transport: packaging, documentation of the artwork’s condition, and the question of who is liable for any damage. Whereas Landgrave Wilhelm was still prepared to bear the transport risk himself, nowadays it is generally necessary to take out insurance, for two reasons. Firstly, in addition to the non-material loss involved, the loss of a valuable artwork could result in a considerable financial loss for its owner; and secondly, for any entity to which the artwork is loaned, its loss could, under certain circumstances, result in claims for compensation which could put museums, art galleries or similar public interest institutions out of business.
So from a modern perspective, what are the key elements of best practice that any curator or collector should employ, in order to ensure that they can dispatch their precious artworks anywhere in the world with maximum peace-of-mind?
Correct handling and packaging that is fit for purpose
First of all, it is necessary to ensure that artworks are packed in a way that meets their material requirements. If the owner does not have packaging in stock and is able to have an artwork packed professionally, a specialist art shipper should be entrusted with this task and ultimately also with the transport of the artwork.
This requires art shippers to meet high standards, since every artwork is by nature individual, and some contemporary or highly fragile artworks, or those consisting of combinations of numerous materials (such as aluminium foil, curved neon tubes or even cobwebs), present particularly tough challenges for packers and transporters. To take one example, neon tubes are formed by bending a hot glass mass: a process that creates tensions in the glass, which may crack if the tube is subjected to the slightest stress. Therefore, neon tubes must be packed in foam matrices tailored exactly to their form, which prevent them from vibrating without exerting too much pressure.
Even works made from ‘traditional’ materials, such as medieval wooden sculptures, require the utmost care and protection from shocks or vibrations, and in particular from climatic fluctuations. Colored frames are not necessarily always as robust as they appear. Furthermore, their packaging must allow for the fact that wood ‘works’, and that therefore, stable climatic conditions must be maintained throughout the entire transport process (please note: this applies to most artworks).
Of course, as a general rule, items made from fragile materials such as porcelain, faience, glass etc. are prone to damage. Therefore, the handles or other protruding parts of a jug, for example, must not be exposed to any pressure. When either packing or unpacking, one must ensure never to grip an object by its handle, which may be flimsy and break. Likewise, anyone packing a porcelain figure should bear in mind that it must always be gripped at its sturdiest and most solid point, and that it must be supported from beneath by the other hand. Wearing cotton gloves, which is mandatory for other artworks, would be a mistake in this case. Their lack of adhesion means that glazed porcelain, in particular, could easily slip out of the wearer’s hands.
In order to protect old wooden panel paintings from shocks, one must bear in mind that these works may often consist of two or more glue-laminated or mortised boards, which may be flimsily held together. If in addition, woodworm have eaten away part of the material, even small vibrations – never mind impacts against the transport crate – will be enough to break the panel apart. Here, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that the transport crate is fitted with appropriate and comprehensive interior damping, which will totally absorb any such external stresses.
Therefore, for the packing and transport of artworks, it is essential not only to have suitable packaging but also experience in their correct handling. Even the best transport crate is not much use if an item is wrongly packed or unpacked.
"Even the best transport crate is not much use if an item is wrongly packed or unpacked."
Another possibility: cardboard boxes
For small and medium-sized items – particularly ‘flat goods’ such as paintings or paper works – hard cardboard boxes may also be suitable for shorter transport journeys within the same climatic zone, particularly as they offer the additional benefit of reducing the consignment weight. For this purpose, two or three-layer heavy corrugated cardboard of types 2.90 to 2.96, which are standardized and tested for specific stresses (using tests such as the ‘bursting test’ and the ‘edge crush test’) should be used. In general, a specialist art shipper can easily manufacture packaging of this kind (e.g. U-boxes) to fit perfectly. If an artwork can be rolled up, telescope packaging should be used. Using this method, the rolled artwork is inserted into a square-sided cardboard box ‘tube’, which is then sealed and itself inserted into a similar but slightly larger tube. The resultant package must then be opened by extracting the narrower box from the larger – in the manner of a retractable telescope. Thus, when removed, the sheet cannot unroll, be torn or buckled, as would be possible if it were pulled out of a regular tube.
Documentation of the artwork’s condition
The packaging should be documented photographically or by means of a written agreement in the transport order, so that there might be proof, in cases of damage, that the protection of the item during transit was given due consideration. This also involves ensuring that the transport documents are complete, and that any reservations are duly noted if the packaging is damaged upon receipt of the delivery or if, for any other reason, a suspicion arises that damage has occurred.
Condition reports are of eminent importance and should be made at every phase of the transport process. We say this knowing full well that this cannot always happen to the desired extent, whether for reasons of time or insufficient staff resources, or because the value of the insured item isn’t worth the expense. As regards the loaning of artworks, one pressing problem from today’s perspective is the fact that the first condition report is only written when an artwork arrives at the exhibition venue. Yet, by then, the loaned item has already undertaken a journey, for which it has presumably been insured, during which damage may well have occurred. But how is a wronged party supposed to explain to their insurer that damage occurred during the transport process, or how and when this damage occurred, if the course of events cannot be clearly reconstructed, and if the condition in which the item began its journey was not documented? Even though there is often insufficient time and money to produce comprehensive condition reports, it should still always be possible – irrespective of whether the transport is for a loan or for any other purpose – at least to document the artwork photographically before packing it for its journey. Although this is no substitute for a detailed condition report, one still at least has recourse to a minimum level of documentation in case of doubt.
It cannot be expected from a collector or museum that an artwork be dispatched at their own risk, as it once was by Landgrave Wilhelm VIII. But even if one has good insurance, it is still essential repeatedly to review the measures planned or adopted in order to ensure the safety and intact state of the works (which the landgrave was so keen to emphasise), to subject these measures to critical scrutiny if necessary and, in case of doubt, also to discuss them with one’s insurance provider.