A collection of circular art storage tubes

Art Transit – A Technical View for Works of Art on Paper

Works of art can often be damaged in transit. Sometimes the distances involved are very short, such as from one room to another, whereas others encompass international flights and long distances by road. Such transportations are occurring numerous times every day between provider and client for many different reasons. These include:

1. Works sent on consignment
2. Loans to exhibitions
3. Sales
4. Framing, photographing and conserving.

All of these will involve a method of transport ranging from courier motorbike to international air-travel.

In a museum it is normal for a conservator to advise on the requirements of all works in their care for both packaging and transport. In larger institutions there are individuals whose job is specifically to take this role. Their knowledge and expertise of environmental and packaging requirements for individual pieces and situations is counterbalanced with information on the most recent innovations, in both methods of transport and electronic tagging devices. More often than not, a specialised conservator or curator with conservation knowledge will be expected to courier the work if the journey involves any significant distance. This individual will be expected to give appropriate and immediate advice on the impact of the environment and any adverse situations that might arise during the journey.

Of course the reason for this diversity between the museum world and the commercial world is the cost. However, it seems to me that very often the values of works that are being transported are equivalent to those in institutions and all too often the damages that we see are due to recurring factors.

In all cases it is necessary to make a basic assessment, before transporting any work of art, in order to limit the risks of damage. One must consider:

1. The implications of the move, i.e.: identifying the risks
2. The suitability of the artwork for travel and any inherent weaknesses that may be affected by this
3. The method of transportation and the appropriate packaging in each case
4. The duration of the journey and number of venues involved
5. The likelihood of any fluctuating environmental changes that might occur and the impact that these might have on the work of art.

Sadly these basic requirements are all too often ignored, with the inevitable outcome.

This is usually the result of the following:

1. Lack of knowledge and understanding of the vulnerability of the work
2. Economy dictating the choice of transport and packaging versus the value of the artwork
3. Complacency, especially when the distance is very local
4. A shortage of time.

All too often damage can be attributed to poor handling as a result of too much haste. Long hours and working against the clock are just two examples of contributing factors that lead to works being mishandled in some way.

On most journeys artworks suffer the most frequent damages due to intense shocks and vibrations during the handling phases. Even when a work has been carefully packaged and crated it is still vulnerable of being dropped, toppled or suddenly tilted, often resulting in damage of some sort.

Common Causes

Damages to works of art on paper in transit, is a very broad topic when considering the plethora of both media and supports that are available to artists.

Firstly, to elaborate on this slightly, paper as a support may be composed of a number of different things. Fibres may be European, such as cotton, linen, chemical or mechanical wood pulp. They may be eastern, such as gampi, bamboo, mitzumata and kozo. These fibres vary greatly in length, colour and density. Paper may also be composed purely of fibres or have various additives, such as coatings loadings, fillers and optical enhancers. The method of production may also contribute to the paper’s characteristics, from handmade to machine made, pressed, sized, calendared. This can result in paper varying in colour, tone texture, thickness, opacity and gloss.

The type of paper that an artist selects for a work of art is largely determined by the type of media that is chosen. The artist has at his disposal for example: graphite, ink, watercolour, gouache or oil. He may also choose to use collage, photography, one of the many print processes or even mixed media. The myriad of combinations is endless and therefore no two damages to any work of art may be the same.

The causes and effects may be categorised somewhat however, with generic problems and results often being found. Damage may result in both media and support or just one of the two.

Glass

One of the most common forms of damage that we see is the impact of broken glass on an artwork. The level of damage, obviously, may vary. If the media is damaged it may be successfully retouched as the incisions are often narrow and do not obscure an understanding of what was previously there. This is more commonly successful on drawings, watercolours and gouache and intaglio and some prints. Pastels and other planographic processes, such as screenprints are often much harder to retouch as are any areas of pure colour.

If the damage also extends into the paper surface, a similar fibre paper of a similar weight can be toned and infilled to create a successful repair. Many papers however, with additives, may be harder to infill despite finding a similar paper for repair. An area of shadow may surround the infill due to slightly different reflective qualities, preventing an invisible result.

If this occurs in an area with media, the results are usually more successful than that which has occured on an area of paper only. Larger areas of paper loss can be very hard to disguise, as the edges of the damage are hard and straight. If glazing strikes the surface without actually penetrating, it may also create a sheen that is visible in raking light. This is particularly hard to disguise in areas of both media and support.

Handling Creases

Handling creases are another of the most common problems that we deal with. They occur, as one would imagine, mainly on larger works on paper. In this case, the word ‘transit’ is being applied loosely, extending to also being defined as simply moving a work from as short a distance as room to room. Any slight flexing of the sheet, causing two areas to move at slightly different angles, can cause this to occur. It is often also a problem when more than one person is required to move the work with any slight deviation from complete co-ordination.

Handling creases are regularly treated and treated successfully, however if the crease is harder and a rigid angle has been set into the paper, this is much more difficult to remove.

In our experience, the majority of larger works on paper that we see are usually prints. If the handling crease extends into the area of media on certain prints it can become problematic. Soft creases into the print may be removed but harder creases and cracks into screenprints for example require complex plasticization of the ink with solvent vapours. This conservation treatment is new and success cannot be guaranteed.

Other creases and crushed edges that we view are due to methods of packing and unpacking. Creases regularly occur when a work has been rolled for transit and the diameter of the tube itself is too small for the size of the artwork. The resulting effect is that the work is rolled tightly and creases can form through both media and support.

Creases to a support, as earlier mentioned, if soft, are successfully reduced with local treatment. If the crease is hard and fibres are broken, the work can be restored but rarely restored to perfect condition. The fibres may be realigned into position and flattened but a slight shadow where they have been broken is unavoidable.

If a paper is brittle through age and degradation, the harder crease is much more likely to occur. In addition, cheaper papers made with fewer fibres and bulked out with fillers and loadings are more inclined to crease badly.

Tears

Tears may also occur due to the same causes as creases in paper. In the same instance as earlier mentioned, where a work of art is rolled too tightly into a tube, on unpacking this problem can become worse. The roll may be pulled out and will be susceptible to coming out unevenly. Further pulling of the paper can cause tearing.

As with creases to paper, tears may also occur when a large work, is being moved by more than one person and there is less than complete co-ordination. Any form of bad handling can actually cause a tear. Tears are usually formed at the edge of the paper, which, in the case of prints may commonly have no media. As it has already been explained this may be more difficult to invisibly mend. Tears may be retouched relatively successfully if the paper has torn where one side may slightly overlap the other.

If there has been some loss of paper, the tear is much harder to repair and an infill or pulp repair will be required. This is also true of a tear where dirt has entered into the paper. The dirt is often hard to remove and an infill or pulp is a necessity.

Holes

Holes are repaired in the same manner as tears with either infills or pulping. The degree of restoration in such instances is more limited however and again depends on the size of the hole, the nature of the paper and the media the artist has used.

Holes and punctures into the paper surface may occur, for example, with damage through screws and bolts during unframing, framing and hanging for exhibition, and even forklift trucks.

Puncture holes, into paper alone, are particularly hard to repair successfully, as in the same way as glass damage. A shadow where the infill is positioned can often be seen. Where puncture holes have occurred, the paper fibres around the damage have often also been stretched with the impact and therefore are very hard to reposition successfully. These, like tears, are more commonly seen at the edge of the paper surface. Large ructions, as one may imagine may occur in any area and totally obliterate the image itself. These cases are ‘total loss’. An example is a Hockney Photomontage where a forklift truck had penetrated through the crate and frame itself. The work was considered too damaged for Conservation treatment.

Temperature and relative humidity

During transit, work may also be affected by fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity (RH). In extreme cases moisture may also penetrate frames or adversely affect unframed works on paper. Slight fluctuations may cause paper supports to warp.

As mentioned earlier, this is very dependant on the paper in question. In general, lighter weight papers are more vulnerable. Also those that are machine-made, due to the fibres orientation being all in one direction.

Warping may be conserved with gentle humidification and pressing. Extensive warping, where a work has been heavily taped or tabbed down into a mount, may be more pronounced and may cause creasing, but would be conserved in a similar manner. Specific care with this conservation treatment is taken with water sensitive work, which may not be able to tolerate it at all, or only for limited duration.

If a work has warped greatly with such environmental changes it may not be possible to flatten it again. Paper is often referred to as having a “memory”. Pressing the artwork may flatten the support temporarily but the paper may revert to the position it had previously obtained with the fluctuations.

In addition artworks that have warped and also have fragile media, such as large areas of impasto or bitumen prints, cannot be pressed over the surface with anything that may flatten the nuances of media that form the work. Limited pressing with felts and blotters or local treatment is available. Strip lining or vacuum table lining, are also available options.

With fluctuations of temperature and RH, to a greater degree, moisture and therefore condensation may enter poorly sealed, framed works, during transit. Slight tide lines may form at the edges of the paper support and often dirt and dust particles from the frame itself may solubilise and enter into the paper. Tidelines can often be removed successfully with aqueous treatment, however those that resist cleaning, are those where dirt has penetrated into the paper and will not solubilise again. The longer the tidelines are left, the more permanent the staining.

Moisture may also adversely affect the media in a framed work in various ways. Water sensitive media, such as inks, dyes, pastels and charcoal may become soluble and areas of the artwork can be totally obscured. Restoration in such cases is often not possible.

Extensive or prolonged exposure to moisture with both framed and unframed works can cause the most dramatic and devastating effects for conservation. Heavy water staining may occur, with additional mould growth. Mould, when soluble, is particularly destructive to paper, attacking and weakening the paper fibres and often staining the paper with a wide range of colours. Mould must be immediately denatured and treated, preventing further damage to the work in question and most importantly preventing the spread to other works on paper in the vicinity. Complete conservation is very variable in the instances of mould growth. Not only does the success of the treatment depend on the paper and media that have been used but also the type of mould and the duration of exposure it has had to the work itself.

Mould may also manifest itself on the paper surface in a powder-like form and in such instances it may be physically removed. The damage, at first glance may look particularly dramatic. However, once this has been removed, the image beneath may not be affected. In other examples, where the mould has attacked further, the image can be obliterated.

Fragile and modern media

Certain modern and fragile media are particularly vulnerable to damage during packing and transit. The most immediate to come to mind is that of pastels where the surface of the work is softer and less bound than that of most other media. Damage may occur directly, as with something impacting or brushing the surface, and also indirectly, due to vibrations caused during transit.

Pastels, damaged directly, may be successfully retouched in many cases. However damage due to reverberations may result in microscopic particles of media shifting in position or leaving the surface. An overall shift in the texture of the work may be observed when comparing before and after. This would not be restorable.

Charcoal and pastel works are very vulnerable and exposed to smudging when unfixed. To a lesser degree this may be restored to perfect. When the media has moved extensively this becomes particularly problematic, as the retouching can be unethically subjective.

Uncured paints are also often problematic. The oil or acrylic that the artist has used in such cases has been applied so thickly that it does not dry out completely. The surface of the work is therefore vulnerable to becoming stuck to anything that may lie on it. In the instance of a work by Peter Doig the acrylic was successfully separated from the glassine with the application of heat. Applying a high temperature may allow the media to slightly plasticize again, in these cases. Work has also been successfully released from glass and Perspex by applying both heat and ice to the area affected.

It should also be noted that while many damages in packing and transit affect only one area of the artwork, the conservation treatment must often deal with the work as a whole. Areas of degradation unrelated to the specific damage must also be met in the treatments undertaken. Conservation treatment may consequentially be more interventive than the damage initially implied.

There are a great variety of damages that may occur during packing and transit. For us, as paper conservators/restorers glass damage and creases are the most common offences experienced in packing and transit.

Prevention and the role of the conservator

In the last twenty years the whole problem of damage to works of art in transit has gradually been improving. This is due to an increased awareness and the availability of superior materials. There have been numerous guidelines written, together with several conferences, the most recent of which ‘Part and Parcel of the Job’ took place in 2002, at the British Museum. However the need for safe transportation of art has also increased during this period due to the increasing number of exhibitions and art fairs that occur all around the world.

It is damage caused by breaking glass and handling, which has occurred directly from being in transit, which we see most frequently, in the studio. I would therefore like to concentrate on these two areas, as far as prevention goes.

Glass

The development of glass has made enormous strides in the last twenty years. Several millions of dollars have been spent on the research and development of high-tech and high performance conservation and speciality glass. Because of this there is now a greatly expanded range of choices available for the reframing of art works.
These include:

1. Ordinary float glass – the cheapest option. Disadvantages are reflective quality and a greenish tinge, due to iron oxide additives.

2. UV filter – 2.5mm float glass with an added UV filter to one side that either absorbs or excludes damaging UV rays. This is only slightly more expensive but the filter does break down with time and can leave a yellowish tinge to the glass.

3. Non-reflective – either etched or coated with optical interference coatings increasing the transmission while reducing reflection. This also will exclude the UV rays. The disadvantage is that it gives a green or violet reflection at oblique angles.

4. Colourless – trade names: ‘Water White’ – which contains low iron content giving a zero colour-shift and; ‘Denglass’ – which has optical coatings for low reflectance and low-iron content. Disadvantage is cost.

5. Laminated – two sheets of glass interleaved with a resin adhesive or a plastic interlayer that can provide both low reflectance and UV filtration. Disadvantage is both cost and weight.

6. Acrylics – trade names include: Perspex, Plexiglass and Acrylite. First developed in the 1930s and used for glazing artwork since the 1970s. Good for larger works and safer. Recently available in water-white plastic incorporating a UV filter, scratch-proof and non-reflective. Originally cheaper than glass the more sophisticated range is relatively expensive, although much safer than glass. Disadvantages are that some media, including uncured paints and pastels, can adhere to the surface. Also it is not available above 3-meter lengths.

Breakage

The Tate has undertaken a detailed study of all these different types of glass whilst reviewing the glazing specifications of artworks at Tate. This has included controlled tests on the breaking patterns of each when exposed to the same impact. The results are both interesting and in some cases, unpredicted.

1. Standard low-reflective glass with spacers and no mount
2. Standard low-reflective glass with window mount surrounding art-work
3. Standard low-reflective fitted into a rigid frame with a stiff well-sealed back-board
4. Laminated low-reflective glass fitted with window mount
5. Acrylic sheet fitted in frame with spacers.

They found that in all cases the glazing resisted breakage on impact to a far greater degree than predicted. Where the glazing was in contact with a window mount the pattern of breakage was more controlled restricting the damage to the point of impact. More force was required to break glass in a frame fitted with spacers, concluding that an air pocket between glass and object provided some resistance. Glass framed in full contact with the mount board broke the most easily, although the breakage pattern of the glass fitted with spacers broke far more spectacularly and would have seriously damaged an artwork.

Laminated glass 4.4mm thick broke at the same impact thresholds as the equivalent of ordinary 4.4mm glass. However the breakage pattern formed a cobweb effect and had no contact with the underlying object even at the point of impact. In this way this proved (as expected) to be the safer than the other tested glass.

Acrylic had slightly more resistance to impact but broke into two sharp cracks that would have been capable of inflicting enormous damage to the underlying work. Correct taping with low-tack speciality tape can provide protection if applied correctly. It it is essential to cover every inch of glazing with care not to overlap onto the rebate of the frame.

Incorrect taping can lead to glazing breaking and being held in place, which in itself can cause eventual damage. The careful removal of tape can also be hazardous if carried out too quickly or at an angle that causes stress to the work beneath the glass. A static charge in tape can cause friable media such as pastel to offset onto the glass surface.

The final conclusion of this study was that the most important element was to ensure that the frame itself was strong enough for the size of the work and rigid enough to prevent flexing. Old frames with mitred corners that are beginning to pull apart can lead to the glazing being too loose, which makes it more vulnerable.

It would be fairly safe to send a framed and glazed work in transit un-crated providing that the appropriate glass had been chosen, the glass was taped correctly if applicable and the structure of the frame was sound and rigid.

While I was researching this subject I enquired of many of my clients their preference for glazing. Many dealers preferred to use acrylic if the works were travelling abroad since both the weight and cost were a factor. In one case, where high value works are sent often to America, they preferred to use the expensive 4.mm Denglass with its low reflective and shatterproof qualities. The advantages being that there is no need to tape this glass if crated and that the quality and purity of colour enhance the image underneath. This is an expensive option that is simply not available to many other West End dealers. However, many claimed, that very few works were actually damaged, if packed carefully. It appears that many of the accidents occur after unwrapping and before hanging. Of course this is always at the receiver’s end! This brings me to my next point.

Poor handling

In the case of accidental damages that can be directly attributed to poor handling, the causes are of course very varied. One of the main elements must be too much haste. Works are creased, torn and dropped, when attention is distracted or there is a lack of forethought. Plan in advance where to unpack the work and check that the route is clear even if it is only a few yards. Moving loose sheets around in folders from room to room or upstairs would all considerably lessen the eventuality of damage.

I have enquired also, from many clients and people responsible for moving artworks their feelings about wearing gloves. It appears that most people would prefer to use clean washed hands when handling framed works of art, the exception being gilt frames and some sculpture. Since one of the forms of damage that we see frequently is due to work being dropped, it does seem to be preferable that one can get a better grip without gloves. However, there will always be the careless handler who inflicts grubby finger-marks on the edge of a work.

Many of the people I have spoken to claim that damages occur frequently when works are being removed from rolls or tubes. Some galleries send un-packing guidelines, which I am sure is a good idea, although it risks appearing to be patronising the client.

Some clients ask a conservator or someone who is experienced in conservation issues to write a brief report on each work previous to travel and then again when the work returns. In this way, claims that the work was already damaged before transporting and unpacking, can be avoided.

Overall the standards of care and packaging that many of the West End galleries take in packing their works for travel is extremely high. One of my clients, who takes pride in the fact that they are renowned for this aspect, have provided me with a very clear set of diagrams showing their particular way of both rolling and flat packing.

Environmental changes

Apart from the dangers of physical damage when in transit, an artwork is exposed to fluctuations of the environment. Rapid changes of both temperature and relative humidity can accelerate any pre-existing problems and develop new ones. The faster the speed of change from one environment to another the more danger there is of resulting damage to the artwork. Paper, being hydroscopic, will be particularly effected and react dramatically in such circumstances.

If both the home and destination’s environments are similar it is only necessary to monitor the situation during transit. This can be controlled by good packaging and monitored by electronic tagging devices, when a work is crated. A tightly sealed frame will help protect a soft wrapped work although this will always remain more vulnerable. As with glass there have been huge advances made over the last few years to improve this area of transportation. The monitoring equipment, packing cases and vehicle dynamic system controls have all helped to address this difficult issue. However, in the commercial art world works are often transported on a much less formal basis and as a result controlling the environment is far more random.

In 1987 a study was published by Roderick Lane from the Royal Library on carrying hand-luggage on a hypothetical international flight to Australia with two re-fuelling stops en-route. His aim was to devise a packing case in order to transport a collection of Old Master drawings, in this manner.

From a stable home environment of 55% RH and 18ºc he surmised that the works would be exposed to six different variations of RH with a drop down to a low of 15% and up to a high of 80%! Likewise, temperature changes might increase to a top temperature of 35ºc!

A well-designed packing case would protect a vulnerable work from the extremes of condition changes in such circumstances. However, it might be more normal to carry a work only framed and soft packed. In this case a work that was very fragile or had friable media would be at risk and a safer alternative would need to be considered.

In her book ‘Environmental Management’ May Cassar recommends that works should be acclimatised for at least twenty-four hours, to allow time for adjustment and settlement, before un-packing. Therefore, she recommends that this should be taken into account when planning transporting and installation timetables. Recommended also, is that the packing materials should be stored in similar environmental conditions to the artworks. This would be especially valuable if the work was changing destinations and being packed and un-packed several times.

Good packaging that is capable of withstanding environmental changes is expensive. However this must be worthwhile and cost-effective for high value and vulnerable works, where, as has been discussed, the alternative can lead to devastating results.

Conclusion

This has been a review of works of art on paper that have been exposed to and damaged by transit. From this viewpoint it seems to me that more works are damaged in the day-to-day accidents that occur in the gallery, museum, exhibition space or home rather than on the international flight from London to New York. In these circumstances, and in the majority of cases, great expertise and vigilance is applied to ensure safe transportation.

There will always be someone who chooses to roll a fine Old Master print in newspaper and then ram it into an impossibly tight cardboard roll! There will always be someone who sends a large contemporary work across the Atlantic in an inappropriately light frame and thin glass, without adequate packing!

There are many occasions when we, conservators, are able to restore the damages that have occurred. Sadly, however there are also some instances when the work has been ruined beyond our expertise and the work has to be written off for insurance purposes.

© Sophia Fairclough and Caroline Harrison
Edited for Brownhill Insurance Group, November 2016