Amina Wright, curator of fine art, inspects paintings stored in the vaults at the Holburne Museum in Bath
Amina Wright, curator of fine art, inspects paintings stored in the vaults at the Holburne Museum in Bath © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Art in transit is fraught with dangers. With so many exhibitions, auctions and fairs being staged worldwide, the movement of art is constant. Forklift trucks have rammed crates holding paintings, bubble wrap has left its distinctive pattern on picture surfaces and lorries have broken sculptures beyond repair.

Insurance statistics paint a worrying picture. “Sixty per cent of all art claims are works in transit, in some size, shape or form,” says Rupert Onslow, an art underwriter at The Channel Syndicate, a specialist insurer at Lloyd’s. “That’s without doubt. Everyone says ‘what about theft?’ But theft is really quite rare. Losses occur when the pieces are at their most vulnerable — when they’re moving. If a work is hanging on the wall or sitting on a plinth, minding its own business, it’s pretty sound and secure.”

He adds: “The moment you touch a piece, you can slip and fall; you can drop it. It’s rarely done through carelessness. Accidents range from a forklift going through a crate to the simple ‘oops, dropped it’.”

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the art world watchdog, warns that treasures are being put at risk by “exhibition mania”, with major institutions “tapping into this harvestable market of people who will pay to see great art. So there’s more and more traffic.”

He despairs at the number of works that have come to harm on being moved. The most serious cases include Picasso’s “The Painter”, which was lost, along with 229 lives, when Swissair Flight 111 crashed in Canada in 1998; Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Elderly Woman”, which suffered a large gash after being sent from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in 2001; and the 9th-century Book of Kells, reportedly affected by vibration after it was flown from Ireland to Australia in 2000.

But moving artwork even within a gallery is risky, Daley says, recalling a 2008 accident at the National Gallery when a 16th-century painting, Domenico Beccafumi’s “Marcia”, was damaged after being dropped during the dismantling of a temporary exhibition on Renaissance Siena. “After the accident, it was said by the gallery, in its report of March 2008, that the panel is ‘fragile’ and will ‘never be allowed to go out on loan’. But that doesn’t stop them from loaning other things, even more fragile, like Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Burlington House Cartoon’ to Paris. The circus just goes on.”

Daley also questions the British Museum’s decision to lend hundreds of antiquities to the Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi for up to five years. “This includes prime works from the Assyrian reliefs from the Nimrud Palace, the site that’s now under the control of Isis. Before they agreed to do that, they’d sent the carvings to Shanghai. The jets had to stop overnight in Azerbaijan, which is hardly the safest place in the world, I would have thought.”

A British Museum representative challenges the criticism. “As the most generous lender in the world, the museum is well practiced at ensuring our loans are safe and secure during transit, travelling along only established flight routes.”

Facsimile from the Book of Kells
The 9th-century book of Kells was affected by the vibration of a flight © Timewatch Images/Alamy

Other experts acknowledge risks, but argue that paintings and sculptures are safe as long as owners do not skimp on packing and transportation.

Julia Nagle, an independent restorer and conservator who has worked extensively with the Tate galleries, praises the care and professionalism of museums, but is regularly shocked by the sorry state of privately owned works brought to her following unfortunate transportation.

She sees an average of one torn canvas every month. “We’ve got a piece that was painted on hardboard with a big hole in it. It was rammed by a forklift truck.”

Bubble wrap is the particular enemy of contemporary paintings, she says: “People think bubble wrap is the right thing to use — something soft. But oil paintings take several years to harden properly.”

British artist Linda Alexander had used it to wrap one of her floral paintings before delivering it to a client, only to discover that it had left its pattern across the surface. Nagle managed to save the painting by removing the varnish. She also restored a £100,000 painting that had been severely damaged after rubbing against its makeshift packing, sticking to its surface.

Her “patients” have included a painting pierced by a table leg in a transportation lorry and a picture severely harmed at an art fair after falling on to another object when a forklift truck went into a nearby flimsy wall. “It’s all about knowing how fragile things are,” she says.

Mari-Claudia Jiménez, a partner in Herrick, Feinstein’s international art law group in New York, warns of other pitfalls facing art in transit. She recalls handling a legal dispute involving a $300,000 sculpture that was ruined after a British gallery sent it to a US art fair. “The shipping crate was made of a certain type of wood that the US requires be fumigated before shipment. As a result, they had to take it out of the crate to transport it. A sculpture with no crate rolling around in the truck got completely destroyed.”

The gallery wanted to show off the work at the fair, even though it had already presold it. The shipper insisted that it could be repaired, but Jiménez argued that it was “a total loss” and therefore its buyer no longer wanted it because “it’s not an original perfect piece”. Litigation followed, but the case was settled.

Howard Spiegler, co-chairman of Herrick, says: “We try to tell galleries that we could be very helpful before litigation starts in trying to prevent problems. But people are not looking for new ways to spend money.” They contact their lawyer after they have been burned, he says.

Galleries will often send artworks to collectors “on approval” and Jiménez recalls one New York gallery sending a crate of paintings worth many millions of dollars to an extremely wealthy collector on an approval basis. The collector decided against buying them but “didn’t do a good job of packing them back up to ship back to the gallery”, she says. “When they arrived, they were destroyed as they didn’t hire a professional shipper to have them sent back. The gallery had to sue an important collector, which would obviously sever the relationship forever.”

Private collectors enjoy lending, particularly as exhibitions in major institutions can increase values. Adam Prideaux of Hallett Independent Art Insurance, a specialist broker, warns: “That’s all very well until something goes wrong.”

Restoration of paintings in the Gallery of Battles at Versailles, France
Restoration of paintings in the Gallery of Battles at Versailles, France © Getty Images

There is a general ignorance of the complexities involved in lending, he says, urging collectors to check insurance and loan agreements: “When it goes wrong, it goes catastrophically wrong. It’s only afterwards you realise the insurers are trying to wriggle out of a claim.”

Even minor damage can affect values. Prideaux has recently been dealing with a collector who lent an installation by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, to a Spanish museum, only to discover that two of the many component pieces had been broken, cannot be replaced and the insurer will not cover the loss.

An installation once worth “hundreds of thousands of euros” has been made “valueless”, he says. “I find it absolutely astonishing and I really question whether anyone would ever lend if people knew that these are the kind of things going on.”

Louise Hallett, his business partner, says: “A fundamental problem is that the art world as an industry is completely unregulated. There aren’t any formal procedures to follow.

The lenders, particularly when they’re private collectors, have huge faith in the museums that they’re lending to because they believe that the museums absolutely know what they’re doing.

“They accept their loan contract without even really reading it and they accept their insurance without knowing what’s in it. They get one piece of paper saying ‘we confirm that this work is insured as per the original policy’. But they never see the original policy so they don’t know what the exclusions are, they don’t know whether there are specific conditions to it. Then they have a damage and are told after the event ‘our policy doesn’t cover this or that’.”

Collectors are now increasingly insisting that museums cover the lender’s own commercial insurance. At this year’s Art Basel fair, the Axa Art group staged a presentation offering advice to collectors on the fragile nature of art.

Martin Bijl, a leading Dutch Old Masters conservator and a former head of restoration at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, says that works damaged in transit have “almost always” suffered due to “a human mistake”.

He adds: “I am working on a large 17th-century canvas that’s unlined, which is very rare. It had been sent to an exhibition and came back with a small tear. It had been wrapped in a good case, so the only possibility is that it happened during transportation. That happens with a large painting because you have to go around corners.” But he says: “I consider these accidents still as exceptions.”

Sometimes, though, works can be damaged when just hanging on a wall. In 2006, Steve Wynn, a millionaire casino owner, put his elbow through Picasso’s masterpiece, “Le Rêve”.

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