Getting the art shipping and handling right (2004)

A conversation with Chris Kneale, Managing Director of Martinspeed, London.

R.J. Preece
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 13 September 2010
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 23(5), p. 10 in 2004.

The phone rings— twice. Galleries in London and Tokyo want to include one of your sculptures in important group exhibitions. But you’ve got to get the artworks over there. How does this process work? What are the issues? And what are the potential pitfalls? Chris Kneale, Managing Director of Martinspeed, a London-based firm specializing in fine art transport, has been in the business for 20 years. Martinspeed has transported historical and contemporary artworks to every continent (except Antarctica). Its client list includes museums such as the Getty and the Guggenheim, a wide variety of galleries including Gagosian Gallery in New York/ Los Angeles/ London, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, and White Cube and the Lisson Gallery in London, as well as individual artists and collectors.

R.J. Preece: What are the key challenges in running an international art shipping and handling business?

Chris Kneale: Safety, security, timing. Our primary concern is to get the work to wherever it’s going safely. It has to be intact, secure, and on time. That’s why people use us. Safety is probably the key element, because the work is often unique, usually of high value, and very important and precious to the person who owns it. Security, because of the value. We have to be incredibly vigilant, especially with the rising prices of some of the modern works and the Old Masters. And timing. Because inevitably there’s a deadline for an exhibition.

R.J. Preece: What sorts of issues arise in transporting and handling sculpture and installation art— as opposed to two-dimensional works?

Chris Kneale: Usually maneuverability, the weight of a piece, and the often difficult aspects of siting the work. Sculpture may not be going to a ground-floor space. Quite often galleries or collectors are on the third or fifth floor. So, it’s a question of getting up there. Do you tear the windows out? Do you use major cranes? Are the lifts good enough?

We just did a private collector’s sculpture garden in Los Angeles, and he didn’t want any of his trees moved or injured in any way. We had to get cranes that would go over palm trees and reach the site he wanted behind the house. People say they want it in the garden, but you have no idea until you get there.

Installation art has its own challenges. A knowledge of different materials and how they behave is essential, as well as close association with the artist.

R.J. Preece: For international shipments, the steps can be boiled down to collection, case packing, transport by road, sea, or air, clearing outgoing customs, then incoming, then transport and delivery. Which step(s) can cause the most headaches?

Chris Kneale: I think the moment we have to, inevitably, hand over to other services— airlines, ocean lines— is the most concerning. However much you control the loading and unloading, transit is out of your control. All of the other aspects can be controlled and problems anticipated.

R.J. Preece: What sorts of problems can occur with other, less experienced shippers?

Chris Kneale: The problem is really the handling— the quality of their vehicles and their training. They don’t often invest as much as they should, in terms of time and experience, in knowing how things should be handled. They send works grouped with other things that aren’t particularly good with art; for instance, they might be handling machinery at the same time. They also don’t always pay close attention to the paperwork, which becomes a problem. People believe that because we are now operating in the EU, there are no paperwork problems—that there is free movement of goods. But there isn’t. If you bring a valuable painting from Paris, it needs a passport, the same way you’d need an export license from London.

Now, because no one actually checks, some of these people get away with it, time and time again. But when customs stops the truck, you’re in trouble. Galleries have financial concerns, and they often use general shippers because the work wasn’t terribly valuable or the client was cheap— then they come to us and say, “We’ve had this held. What can you do about it?”

R.J. Preece: When do you have to be especially concerned about security?

Chris Kneale: High-value works are obviously vulnerable, and there are certain countries, even in Europe, where we have to be especially vigilant. Our trucks have no markings on them to identify us as art carriers, and we stress discretion among our staff at all times.

R.J. Preece: Do contemporary works made out of fragile materials create special challenges?

Chris Kneale: Often artists are caught up in the creative process and are excited about using new materials or found objects without particularly concerning themselves with their transport. We have to be aware of the materials, how the work is made, and anticipate any stress or movement difficulties. We then pack and handle accordingly.

Chris Kneale: Sometimes new work can be less difficult because we have a dialogue with the artist. If you haven’t come across a material before, you can at least ask, “What is this? How did you make it? How was it fired?”

In many cases, the artists are [very] helpful. For example, Antony Gormley will always tell you how he has put the work together. The same for Marc Quinn. We just shipped a blood head to Korea. With that, we needed a certificate that could only be provided by the artist, because of health and safety requirements.

Modern works that are now several decades old can be more difficult. Sending [Joseph] Beuys’s Fat Cradle to the Guggenheim in New York focused our attention— the estate didn’t have any handling instructions. We had to work it out ourselves. We knew it was incredibly fragile. In the end, we had to triple-case it.

R.J. Preece: What are the most challenging artworks to transport and why?

Chris Kneale: Oversized works that require European movement certificates. If we are moving a sculpture wider than the truck through Europe, we have to get certificates, and it takes six weeks to get them from all of the different agencies and countries. Also any work involving dead animals or chemicals: many countries have stringent food, drug, and wildlife restrictions. If you are importing a dead bull, it needs certificates. It’s just like traveling— you can’t take plants, meat, or cheese into America. The same thing applies to any mixed-media work that involves such materials, including hazardous chemicals, which have to have their own certificates and specialist packing. You have to identify the different materials and then look at the regulations.

R.J. Preece: If you were an artist who wanted to send one or two works overseas for exhibition purposes only, what cost-effective, secure, and headache-proof way would you suggest? And what would you roughly estimate this to cost?

Chris Kneale: There are too many considerations to give a good example. We do not publish a tariff because each shipment is different, but if, for example, the work was to travel to Zurich, we would suggest that, depending on size, it be wrapped, cardboard boxed, and sent on our group package truck service. This would mean one handler and a simple, totally controlled transit. For example, Katharina Fritsch’s three Madonnas. The small one is about a meter high. Something like that would be a minimal shipment. Prices start from about £300 on a groupage truck.

R.J. Preece: At the other extreme, what would you definitely not do when shipping an artwork?

Chris Kneale: Sling unwrapped works in the back of the car and set off without any paperwork.