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Managing the (Mobile) Risk of Fine Art Investing

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Something amazing recently happened in the art world: Christie’s had its first ever $1 billion week in auction sales.

Let me say that again, $1 billion. That’s an impressive number, but even more than being impressive, what that tells us is people are parking their money in their passions.

The problem is that art faces an inherent amount of risk. Why? Well, simply put it’s a mobile investment. I don’t mean mobile in the context of creative movements, but in regards to physical transport. Many of us think displayed art has a fixed place on a museum wall or in someone’s primary home, but perhaps the better way to think of art is as a real peripatetic. It is the ultimate jetsetter, going on loan or following its owner to his or her summer home or foreign-owned property in, let’s say, Paris or Dubai.

As art auction sales soar, the somewhat pedantic and pragmatic conversation around how to ensure artworks are protected will be of the utmost importance to anyone interested in art. From serious collectors and art enthusiasts to anyone who frequents a museum, preservation of these cultural icons matters to us. 

So, given my expertise, I want to share a five-step guide to protecting art while in transit and during installation:  

Step 1:  Do you have a worldwide fine art policy?

Insurance policies can be complex. But if you are considering moving your artwork, understanding the intricacies and nuances of your insurance policy is non-negotiable. And the first thing you should look for is that your insurance policy provides worldwide coverage. Typically, a fine art policy will also include coverage for breakage and mysterious disappearance, as well as inflation protection. 

Step 2: Do you have an updated appraisal?

Art is most vulnerable while in transit–a point which I have harped on some, but it’s an important one that deserves continued reinforcement. Because it is most vulnerable during transport, collectors would be wise to get appraisals done prior to moving artwork to be certain that the piece is insured at the right valuation. A general rule of thumb is to update valuations every three to five years to keep up with market fluctuations. Pieces by popular post-war and contemporary artists should be appraised every two to three years, as some artists from those market segments have experienced significant growth in recent years.

Step 3: What type of materials will be moved?

You would be wise to take note of artwork made from ephemeral or unstable materials (for example a Damien Hirst formaldehyde-filled vitrine) to determine if any items require special care and handling. 

Step 4: Will you be working with professional fine art packers and shippers?

It may surprise you to learn that the fine art packing and transport industry is largely unregulated, so it is critical that you work with well-vetted professionals. Packers and shippers that come into contact with your artwork should be trained art handlers, and you should check that companies do background checks on all employees. Prior to packing a work of art, a condition report, with digital images, should be completed. If items are valuable or traveling a long distance, consider having a museum-quality crate constructed, which can be reused for the return trip.

Ground shipping has different considerations than transport via air. If art is being transported via ground, the truck should have dual drivers, air-ride suspension, GPS tracking and a security alarm. Depending on the materials being transported, a climate control truck may be required. Fine art shipments should take a direct route with few to no stops. The last thing anyone would want is for a Lucien Freud or Van Gogh to sit overnight in a highway rest stop. 

If items are being transported by air, have them packed and crated at a Transportation Security Administration Certified Cargo Screening Facility. In 2010, the TSA mandated that 100% of cargo loaded onto passenger planes must be individually screened. Fine art packers with a Certified Cargo Screening Facility designation have been approved by the TSA to pre-screen cargo prior to it reaching the airport, which could prevent a TSA agent from opening your crated Picasso. 

Despite the value of the cargo, it is not unusual for fine art transport companies to contract out jobs to third parties, particularly when items are traveling long distances or internationally. This means that the company you hire to move your art may not be doing the actual transit. If they are using subcontractors, those vendors should adhere to the same standards as the company you contract with, including completing background checks on drivers and anyone coming into contact with your artwork.  

Step 5: Where will the artwork be installed?

You can hire an expert art handler to install your artwork. An art handler will take into account the weight and shape of a piece before installing, and will use proper hardware to secure the item. However, since life is not without its homework, prior to moving artwork, consider where within your home (or on your grounds) you would like items will be installed. 

Carefully examine the following factors to determine if the piece can safely be installed:

  • Can the wall/ceiling/floor support the weight of the piece?
  • Will items be exposed to natural or artificial lighting? Light damage is irreversible, and items should not be installed in direct sunlight or near an intense overhead light or lamp. Works on paper, photographs, and textiles are particularly sensitive to light damage. Protect items by using UV Plexiglass or glass, and install UV film on windows.
  • Are there fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels? Make sure that a stable environment can be maintained. Basements, attics, and bathrooms tend to have rapid climate fluctuations and are not recommended locations to display artwork.
  • Will items be protected by fire and burglar alarms? Smoke detectors should be installed in areas with a high concentration of artwork, and perimeter contacts, interior motion sensors, or individual asset alarms should be installed near artwork.
  • If sculptures will be installed outdoors, take into account potential dangers like irrigation systems and overhanging branches.  

Art is one of life’s greatest pleasures–and rightfully so. In order to ensure a piece is admired for generations to come, it’s imperative today’s collectors adhere to industry transportation standards.

And who knows? As carefully preserved art continues to appreciate, taking these precautions might help lead to Christie’s first-ever $2 billion week.