Fine Art Transportation

‘Never Assume.’ Issues affecting Fine Art Transport.
Mark Aiston, Fine Art Transporter wrote the following article for an AXA ART Conference – ‘Picking up the Pieces: Managing the Risks of Art on the Move’.

I started my career in this industry in 1982 when, although a huge volume of shipments left our warehouse and were safely delivered, many of the shipping methods and destination services were planned in a very naïve way and it is a miracle that the company made any money at all on quoted shipments or that the damage rate was not higher. I am now based in New York which presents its own issues.

We can take the example of groupage sea freight shipments, the most common method of shipping antique furniture. Objects shipped by sea are wrapped in a particular way. In general they tend to be soft-packed in various layers of padded paper and cardboard. This does a very good job of protecting the piece whilst in the container and during unloading at the arrival agent’s warehouse and also whilst being delivered on a suitably equipped truck.

However, a lot of factors come into play upon arrival and during delivery that can test this packing method. Is the truck properly equipped? Apart from the hope that the crew is adequately trained, truck access to city locations can be a big problem. A powered lift gate is often essential, though not for smaller pieces. Larger bulky pieces can be very unwieldy when passed on from the back of a truck in a tight city environment. Proper tie-bars on the side of the truck are essential; many US trucks have E-Track systems which, though good for crates and square pieces of furniture, are not well suited for pieces with fragile long legs or delicate surfaces.

There are two aspects of the back of a truck, though subtle, that have caused numerous damage. Firstly, the track that a roll-up door recesses into. It is the exact width and depth to remove any brass fittings, wheels, sabots that may be attached to a chair or table leg. Secondly, particularly in the US, the back lip of the truck is covered in a metal surface called “diamond plate”, which chews up any wood that is slid across it.

Can the truck actually get to the address? Double parking is almost unavoidable in cities and with that comes a tricky negotiation of parked cars, kerbs and the possibility of a long walk or worse still a journey of a block or more rattling along on a dolly. Furthermore many streets, even in New York City and certainly in Washington DC and Boston, are too narrow to double-park a truck. It must be constantly moved, which adds risk of damage.

Truck access becomes even more of an issue for destination cities a long way from the port. As the objects are soft-packed rather than crated, delivery inland must be handled by either an art-shuttle or a Vanline. As the art shuttle can often be more expensive and less frequent, final delivery via Vanline may be specified at time of export. Although this may seems like a good idea, from the shipper’s point of view, Vanlines often create additional problems. These trucks are huge. 55-foot long trailers with 20-foot tractor units are not unusual. They are designed to travel 1,000 miles a day across prairies; they are not designed to deliver to a gallery on Madison Avenue.

How can we avoid such problems?

In my opinion appointing a local art handler to receive the shipment at or close to the destination is a very good way of reducing these risks. Their warehouse location will probably mean that the long distance truck can deliver directly there. They will probably know the specific delivery address and will know the potential delays. Delays due to bad traffic or finding a parking space are one thing, but delays during the delivery, whilst the art is sitting in a building lobby or worse still on the sidewalk, increase potential risk to the objects we are transporting.

Many buildings in older cities have awkward service entrances. Even newer buildings in other cities have you jousting with painters, construction teams and the like in the service elevator. I have personally had to fight off painters in an elevator at The Pierre on Fifth Avenue who saw the extremely valuable gilt table I was delivering as a great place to put their heavy paint pots.

The layout, elevator size and door size of service entrances in New York City defies belief. And perhaps even more of an obstacle is the building superintendent, or worse still the elevator operator.

Local Knowledge is Key. And it is down to the shipper to arrange for that local assistance. We risk putting the shipment in harm’s way without it.

Local knowledge is important in another way and that is local Customs Clearance procedures. One can just about guarantee that if foreign customs at the point of import deem it necessary to physically examine a shipment, there WILL be damage.

For example, I once cleared a forty-foot container of antiques from China into New York via the port of New Jersey. US Customs decided to examine the shipment and as is their habit, they refused our request to have somebody present when they did that. In the Port of NY/NJ the system is such that when Customs call for an intensive exam, the container is pulled off the pier and hauled to an Officially Nominated warehouse, to be off loaded. These people are not art handlers!

Once unloaded by the warehouse staff and examined, the same people re-load the container. In this instance, the last piece on was a large and ancient wagon wheel. It was merely put on the floor of the container and the doors closed. When the container arrived at the destination, every piece of furniture in the back third of the container was smashed.

Although it is impossible to completely eliminate the potential of intensive examination, it can be greatly reduced by a good, knowledgeable local broker, preferably one on first name terms with Customs at the port of entry.

Shipments to more out-of-the-way places get even more interesting when it comes to Customs Clearance. In these cases, I strongly recommend that you ascertain whether the consignee has a relationship with a broker. Different countries have different rules and local knowledge is KEY. Customs clearance delays, as well as being frustrating, greatly increase risk to the objects shipped.

The Caribbean is particularly interesting, even local knowledge can you let you down there. Several years ago I managed a large shipment from Barbados. The delays we experienced in clearing our packing materials into the country could just as easily have been incurred by a shipment of high value furniture or personal effects. Even though we employed a good local broker, even he could not get the container cleared because every time the Customs Officer was due to examine it, we would get a rain storm and he did not come out in the rain.

At about the same time I handled an export of antiques and furnishings to a house in Tortola in the BVI. In this case we employed the broker that the consignee had specified and who had also been recommended by the shipping line. The house was on a mountaintop and there was no way the container would get there. “NO problem”, says the broker, “we will use smaller trucks to ferry the stuff up the hill.” “They do it all the time”, says the consignee. In actual fact, the truck they were all quite happy using was a twenty-foot dumper truck, which was also being used for the landscaping.

If local companies have to deal with these problems in such innovative ways, there really is no way that the shipper, many thousands of miles away, can envisage these problems without asking.

I mentioned soft-packed shipments and the limitations of that form of protection when situations are not what the shipper expects. Obviously a way of getting around this is to crate the object, though this may not always be practical. It is certainly a good way of protecting smaller pieces. But crates are not impervious to everything.

The Forklift
If you send a shipment by air, it will be handled by a forklift. Much though the airlines are wooing passengers, they do not take the time to handle your freight as carefully. Time is money and speed is of the essence. Sometimes warehouse-men will not even take the time to use the forks, but will reverse into larger crates and slide them across the floor.

Airfreight crates MUST have adequate space for a forklift’s blades underneath. Those runners must be well attached, they often pull off when the crate is going onto or coming off the truck, or when slid across the warehouse at 20 mph.

A painting may look the part in an art storage warehouse, decked out in a beautiful painted crate with rubber gasket seals and bolts. Whilst in the care of an art handler, that crate has probably spent its life being dollied around and manhandled in and out of trucks. Once in the airfreight system, that crate becomes wholly inadequate without forklift runners. Similarly, tall flat crates, either mirrors or big canvases, run the risk of falling over without the attachment of an A-Frame support on each side. Admittedly this probably triples the airfreight costs, but skinny crates do fall over. Possibly worse still, our friendly forklift driver may decide to pick the crate up flat, to avoid it falling over. Assuming he does not have fork-extensions attached, the upward movement of the forks can put unusual and very damaging upward stress on the centre of the crate. I have heard of such an instance very recently.

Merely crating a shipment does not render it impervious to damage if the crating is not done intelligently. I once supervised the re-export of a contemporary exhibition. One of the crates was 12 feet by 6 feet and weighed 1,100kgs. It had barely withstood the outward trip and needed to be reinforced and repaired before we could load it back into the container. When we opened the crate, instead of one very large object inside as expected, we found loads of cartons, and quite small pieces inside. The reason for the size of the crate was a long “spoon” made of foam weighing about 10kgs. The crate did not need to be as large. Because of its size, continual forklift handling had pushed in the bottom, thereby bursting out the sides. It had been dragged, pulling off some of the forklift runners and forks had pierced it, probably whilst being pushed around. Smaller crates would have been much better, with one long and light crate for the one long piece.

It is worth remembering that what is important to us as art transport professionals is not necessarily important to everyone along the chain. Airline warehouses are frantically busy places. It is up to us to try to envisage possible damage potential and act accordingly.

Just because somebody says they are doing something, does not mean they are doing it the way you want it done. Whether inappropriate forms of transport are chosen or something as fundamental as not having enough personnel on a job, the way a shipment is handled impacts directly upon the safety of the object.

A timely and efficient shipping process is, in my opinion one of the most effective ways of ensuring the safety of an object. Once an object leaves its origin, it may well pass through many pairs of hands during its journey. The owners of these hands need to be persuaded that this shipment is the most important thing on their desk that day. Once packed and on its way, there is the freight-agent, sea or air. Who needs to ensure that the shipment moves on the container, truck or aircraft it was booked on? Shipping documents need to be forwarded onto the destination. A shipment arriving without documents, even a domestic shipment, is a disaster waiting to happen. Once at the destination, documents need to be processed properly so that in the case of export shipments, customs clearance is effected quickly and accurately. And once cleared, the freight needs to be collected by either a container haulier or an airfreight truck contractor and finally received by your delivery art-handling agent. That agent will probably make the delivery, but it is possible that they will in turn sub-contract the delivery if it is out of town.

That is a lot of different pairs of hands and someone needs to monitor how they pull together. It is just not good enough to assume.

CONTROL: Someone has to be in control
In my opinion, it is vital that somebody is tracking the shipment from start to finish. Obviously the quality of packing a shipment is a vital part of it getting to its destination in one piece, however, almost as important is the logic and efficiency by which the shipment travels.

Delays, uncertainty and bad planning cause problems and expose the shipment to great risk. Risk can take many forms: potential damage of a well-packed item because an inappropriate form of transport was chosen; increased potential of theft due to delays causing shipments to sit around in busy warehouses; lack of preparation for specific delivery needs.

Proper protection of art involves more than just the nature of the object and its immediate surroundings upon pick-up and as such the technical logistics of art movement play an important part in protecting what essentially was never designed to be moved in the first place.

© Mark Aiston
This edited version was prepared for Brownhill Insurance Group, November 2016.