You don’t always have to fly to Paris to see the Mona Lisa; art, even priceless art, constantly moves around the world for specific exhibitions. And that means logistics! For The Guardian, Andrew Dickson goes deep into the world of fine art transportation, where the objects are precious and singular, the stakes are high, and a damaged shipment means a piece of art is forever lost to us.
None of this comes cheap, needless to say: getting a single object to the UK from Australia and back might cost £60,000, while trucking works from France might cost £25,000. Shippers request “must-ride” status for their artworks to avoid the risk of them hanging around in airports, but it can still be trumped by higher-priority cargo. The registrar told me: “Horses tend to win, because they have to travel same-day, and no one worries about the cost. I had a case recently where they’d lost the forms at the airport and were going to bump my shipment. I nearly lost out to some fresh fish.”
The registrar recalled one courier who watched his crate go on, signed the paperwork – and then missed the flight. “He called me from the departure lounge, saying that the work he was meant to be couriering had just taken off. I was like: ‘You had one fucking job … ’” (In 2010, a courier lost a portrait by the 19th-century French artist Corot worth some £850,000 while drunk in a New York hotel bar. It turned up a few weeks later.)
Assuming they have both made it to the destination, the courier watches the crate leave the plane, before joining it in another climate-controlled truck for transit to the host museum. If an overnight stop is required, either a secure, climate-controlled fine art warehouse must be booked en route – there is a network of these across Europe, owned by different shipping firms – or, more likely, someone stays in the truck at all times, to the extent of sleeping in it.
Even a medium-sized exhibition may contain 80 artefacts, each of which needs to reach its destination at exactly the right moment (installations for a major show are so tight that courier arrivals are booked on an hour-by-hour schedule). Multiply that by the number of touring exhibitions – the V&A currently has 12 on the road – and you can see why a registrar might be in need of a mindfulness poster or two.