Summer is upon us, and while we humans take restful holidays, our art may be hard at work, in dreadful heat, being shipped from place to place. It’s during the transit process that art and collectibles are at their most vulnerable to damage. It’s worth reviewing a few shipping fiascos, while keeping in mind tricks-of-the-trade to avoid them.
It’s nice to think that while we as customers are enjoying cocktails on the beach, the transit companies we hire to ship our Picasso’s are hard at work all weekend long, even over a 4th of July weekend. Unless you’ve hired a specialty firm, chances are your driver is sitting poolside enjoying his/her own cocktail on family vacation, while your paintings suffer from neglect.
I try to avoid shipping over the holidays, period. There’s just too much that can go wrong. It’s especially important during seasons where weather can be extreme. July 4th is often a very hot time of year for much of the country. Given the opportunity, drivers will take a holiday, leaving your valuables at high risk of being damaged or lost in a third party warehouse or worse yet, stuck in the back of the truck for a few days abandoned without climate control. Even if you paid for climate controlled trucking, if they temporarily store your items over a holiday weekend, that may not be available. These large warehouse depots are impressive commercial operations where your art is treated just like the palettes of canned baked beans served at the BBQ. It’s an added high risk opportunity for damage, best avoided.
Did you know that unless your shipping contract specifies otherwise, your goods can be passed from truck to truck to truck along its shipping route? Worse yet, the company your hired at the start can pass your art to a different company, and they in tern can do the same with another company… Third party shippers don’t always comply with the terms of your agreement, because they didn’t make it with you.
I’ve seen paperwork trails during claims processes that show up to 4 different trucking companies passing goods from one to another. In one case, a reputable art shipper contracted with a client in New York to send millions worth of paintings to a new home. During the thousand-mile route, the art was transferred twice to cheaper and less experienced trucking companies. By the time the art was in the hands of the third company, it was no longer protected by climate controls, the driver of the truck didn’t have a driver’s license, and had been released from prison only weeks prior. A claim was filed when the art didn’t arrive at its destination, and the truck and driver had gone AWOL.
When it comes to trucking valuables, climate controlled cargo is the preferred method of shipment, even for items relatively stable like furniture. Unfortunately for some, the extra cost outweighs the perceived risk and they forgo climate control with disastrous results.
In one case, a multi-generational collection of fine wines was trucked across the country heading south during the hottest week of the year. During part of the trip, the wines mysteriously ended up in non-refrigerated cargo – an unforgiving error. You can guess how it turned out… Most of the wines had gotten so hot they pushed out their corks, soaked their containers with wine, and were undrinkable. Millions worth of fine wines were “baked”.
In another case, exposed to high levels of heat, protective blankets meant to pad antique furniture had fused to and imprinted the surface of the items. On an antique where the original finish is highly prized, restoration was of little help. And it’s no fun trying to piece back together the peeled puzzle of decorative inlays.
The International Safe Transit Association warns that the temperature inside trucking trailers can reach in excess of 140 degrees on a hot day in Texas – that’s while the truck is moving and benefiting from air circulation. Trailers get even hotter sitting in a parking lot. That’s hot enough to make bubble wrap stick like glue to an acrylic painted surface leaving a polka-dot pattern. Yes, that’s actually happened. And if you consider the recent heatwave scorching the Southwest last week, breaking 119 degrees in Phoenix, you could probably bake a cake in a non-cooled cargo space.
Even when using the best art shippers, there are times when the process is out of the shipper’s control and we have to pray for the best. One such time is when items are shipped via airfreight. This is the period after the shipper releases the items to airline handlers and before it gets safely tucked into the cargo area of the plane (and vice versa). Given the way airline regulations work, it’s the cargo handlers and TSA inspectors – not the fine art shippers – who work with your items at the airport. Imagine your art dealer in Dallas is shipping a work to you in Boston. The fastest and safest way to get it there is by air, but it’s summertime, and it’s 110 degrees in Dallas, and there’s stormy rain in Boston. If your crate happens to be one of the lucky ones that’s on the tarmac at lunchtime when the union calls break, that crate will sit there baking in the Dallas sun until they return. The same can happen in Boston, that poor crate now being soaked with rain. It’s happened, and it’s rather unnerving if you’re a courier watching it happen with not ability to change the process.
The best way to protect your art during these times is make sure the painting is housed inside a quality crate with the most thoughtfully engineered internal packing. It’s amazing what an experienced crate maker can do these days. ICEFAT in conjunction with museums and highly skilled craters have developed systems, materials, and standards for mitigating the damage of external extremes. Obviously a good wooden crate protects the item from direct impacts, but careful selection of packing materials used inside can insulate a crate from extreme heat, or seal the box to prevent water intrusion. Worth every penny in the right situations.