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Daniel Grant Headshot

Moving? Take Care When Transporting Works of Art

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The neighborhood is going down. The rent is going up. My wife got a job in another city. There is an endless variety of reasons for moving from one place to another, and some people do it often enough that they just keep the cardboard boxes in storage.

Many people planning a move think largely about the largest items they own -- the sofas, bureaus, beds and tables -- especially if they need to guess the size of the truck they will rent. The more delicate things are packed in newspapers, clothing or towels and placed tightly in the spaces around the sofas and tables.

Works of art and antiques, however, are frequently a casualty of do-it-yourselfers or those who hire movers who don't have specific expertise in transporting art. "We've had people come to us who have used general movers in the past," said Bob McCracken, president of Richard Wright, Ltd., an art moving firm in Massachusetts. "They tell us stories: someone's foot went through their painting, things were dropped. General movers hire from pools, people who say they have moved things before."

Artworks require special handling as even a light bump can cause paint to fall off a canvas or permanently unbalance a sculpture. The glass covering a print may shatter and tear the artwork underneath, or a frame may break and create a pull on the canvas.
"You can strap a painting into the back seat of your car and hope you don't hit any potholes along the way," said the registrar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, "but there are a lot safer ways to do it."

Those ways can also be considerably more expensive, and the Metropolitan Museum regularly spends over a million dollars a year moving objects from one place to another. The cost is high because of the potential risks.

Federal Express, for instance, discourages people from using the company to ship artwork because of the high probability of some sort of damage. "Things with a high intrinsic value have a high breakage rate," a company spokesman said. There are, however, a number of precautions one can take, some of which are quite inexpensive and common-sensical.

One of the more painless things to do is remove the hanging devices from behind a painting -- the screws and wires -- and take the picture out of the frame. Both the canvas and frame may expand and contract under certain climatic conditions, brushing against each other which may knock off some paint. Museum conservators often recommend putting some felt or foam between the frame and canvas, then wrapping it all up in brown paper. This provides protection against dirt and dust as well as cushions a small bump.

The national operations manager for U.S. Art Co., which is based in Randolph, Massachusetts, said that it is "common sense to pack and ship a painting upright, the way it is hung on the wall. If it is tipped on its side, the artwork may move, the canvas may be stretched and paint could pop off."

Movers typically wrap a painting in a buffered, acid-free glassine paper, then wrap it again with a bubble wrap and finally place the piece in a cardboard box that is at least three inches larger on all sides than the wrapped picture. Within that three-inch space, one might put styrofoam plastic peanuts or even cooked popcorn - a benefit of popcorn is that you can feed it to the birds afterwards. It is environmentally friendly.

The cost of the packing, for a single 30-by-40 inch painting ranges from $50 to $100, several art movers stated. Some art movers are also willing to simply pack artworks that will be trucked by more general home movers.

If the picture is covered by a sheet of glass, do-it-yourselfers might choose to place a couple of strips of tape across it, securing the glass in one piece if it breaks rather than shattering all over the work.

The tape may leave a residue on the glass when it is later removed, which can be tricky to remove, especially if it is ultraviolet plexiglass whose glazing material may be damaged by the potent chemicals in some household cleansers, such as Fantastic and Formula 409. Those chemicals, by the way, also give off vapors that may equally damage the art. The tape residue should be removed with hexane or mineral spirits, dabbed on a cotton swab; nail polish remover is also usable, although not on ultraviolet plexiglass.

Bubble wrap, which is available at many hardware stores, is difficult to tape down securely (some art movers recommend wrapping the work again in more adhesive-friendly brown paper). One problem with bubble wrap is that it tends to retain heat and moisture, which may harm the art. Wood, for instance, may warp inside bubble wrap; paint may flake off or a metal sculpture may develop rust.

One way to avoid this problem is not pack or move on a rainy day, and it is possible to stipulate to movers that they should not come if the relative humidity is above 65, or below 40, percent or when it is raining. Wind may also be a consideration, as a large cardboard box could be blown out of a mover's hands in a sudden gust.

Another way is to demand in writing that movers not store works left overnight on a loading dock where heat and humidity levels, not to mention dirt, are likely to be unregulated and the possibility of theft is quite real. Art movers generally use climate-controlled trucks (70 degrees Farenheit, 55 percent relative humidity) whose storage units ride on compressed air i order to offer the smoothest possible ride. For a local move, the cost of a climate-controlled truck with two art handlers is over $100 per hour.

When the art must be transported by air, the costs increase substantially, as a wooden crate must be built and air freight charges added. The cost is also dependent upon where the shipment is going, the time of year, the amount of insurance one places on the objects and how they will be cared for along the way. The storage cabins of most planes are pressurized and environmentally controlled to degrees that are not destructive to most works of art. However, it is the airline's own baggage handlers, rather than those of an art moving company, who actually load and unload the crate. Therefore, the crate must be very strong.

Many owners of precious objects ask to have these pieces shipped in wooden crates. For almost any sculpture, this is mandatory, and crates can be constructed at a cost of between $100 and $1,500, depending on how large the piece is and how protected the work will be.
A crate is relatively easy to build. It is a simple pine box, reinforced with 3/4" plywood and lined with waterproof paper and a layer of polyurethane foam. One must make sure that objects do not bang against the sides but are fitted snuggly inside. Screws, rather than nails, should be used to attach the lid of the crate as hammering may prove quite jarring to the works inside which one is looking to protect. Many conservators also suggest coating the outside with oil paint as it adds an extra sealant to protect against rain.

James Wallace, former director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, stated that it is also advisable to place skids on the bottom of the crate, "in order that the prongs of a forklift are able to slide underneath easily, and some ornament on top so that the crate could not be shipped upside down."

The heavier the crate, the more expensive the shipping charge. A 250-pound sculpture, for instance, may need 1,200 pounds of crating material just to ship it safely.

Of course, one should resolve in advance with the mover the amount of insurance -- generally, $5 for every $1,000 in the artwork's declared value, either through a rider on one's homeowner's policy or through the mover -- as well as instructions on how the art objects should be handled, and this should be in writing. Moving can be traumatic, but decisions should not be avoided by letting whatever happens happen.

Outside of the major urban areas, there are very few commercial movers who know anything about how to pack or move works of art. No one wants to take chances with artworks that have monetary or even just sentimental value, so it makes sense to call museums in one's area for recommendations on which companies have moved objects for them. There are a number of companies regularly used by most museums, and they are equipped to provide a certain level of insurance coverage for valuable pieces, although most collectors and museums get additional insurance elsewhere. The classified sections of such art magazines as ARTnews and Art in America are also good places to look for companies that are equipped to handle art objects.

The more one moves, the greater the likelihood of some damage taking place, but it can be minimized by putting everything in writing and requiring certain kinds of care. Understanding the needs of one's most precious objects is the first requirement, and it may be the most important one to reducing the worry over whether or not one's favorite pieces come safe and sound through the door of one's new home.