FEATURE: Crown Fine Art Middle East

How do the logistics of fine art differ from the rest of the industry?
Packing and unpacking is one of the most important elements of the whole process says VanGeijtenbeek.
Packing and unpacking is one of the most important elements of the whole process says VanGeijtenbeek.

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When news broke of the sale of Leonardo di Vinci’s ‘Salvador Mundi’ painting, it set the media world alight because of its price. The painting was sold for a staggering half a billion dollars, the same price as a brand new Airbus A380 at 2017 list prices. The sale to Middle Eastern investors, and news of the painting’s new home at The louvre, Abu Dhabi, broke just days after Logistics Middle East met with Gus VanGeijtenbeek, regional manager, Middle East, Crown Fine Art, a specialist in the transport and handling of priceless artworks.

Crown Fine Art is the kind of company that clients like The Louvre turn to when they need to get a new acquisition from Christies in New York to its final destination in their gallery, and it was Crown Fine Art that Amsterdam Museum used in 2003 when they needed their most important painting, The Night Watch, moved due to renovations.

On 11 December 2003, The Night Watch was moved to a temporary location, due to a major refurbishment of the Rijksmuseum, where the painting is on permanent loan. The painting was detached from its frame, wrapped in stain-free paper, put into a wooden frame which was put into two sleeves, driven on a cart to its new destination, hoisted, and brought into its new home through a special slit.

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While the refurbishment took place, The Night Watch could be viewed in its temporary location in the Philipsvleugel of the Rijksmuseum. When the refurbishment was finished in April 2013, the painting was returned to its original place in the Nachtwachtzaal (Room of the Night Watch).

“Our office in Amsterdam did the logistics for The Night Watch by Rembrandt, that painting is uninsurable because it can’t be replaced, it was painted in the 15th century and was transported in a Kevlar bullet proof case,” says Gus VanGeijtenbeek, regional manager, Middle East, Crown Fine Art. VanGeijtenbeek is arguably the Middle East most specialised fine art logistician, having personally been involved in some of the most high-profile fine art relocations in recent memory.

“When I was at Christie’s as the head of international shipping we had an exhibition of a Warhol, a travelling exhibition to gain interest in the upcoming auction. That was worth US $125-million, which was at the time the world’s most expensive painting,” he says, with not even a hint of self-satisfaction. “Here in the UAE it was a US $50-60-million Picasso that was sold by a collector here in the region and so we had to ship it out to the new owner.”

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The logistics associated with moving such items are intense, according to VanGeijtenbeek, but not for the reasons one might think. On the face of it, the process sounds quite straight-forward. “You can break it up into sections or elements, one is the forwarding or shipping element which is not that different from regular logistics,” says VanGeijtenbeek.

“We tend to prefer air freight because it’s quicker, but some of our clients prefer sea freight because of the cost element. We work with our offices in Europe who collect and pack and crate the exhibition and then we fly it here and do the customs clearance and unpack it and look after it until it’s taken to the venue for display, whether that be an art gallery, museum or private individual.”

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Look a little closer, however, and one sees that this process is actually completely different to the kind of work undertaken by any other logistics company. “Where we differ from a regular logistics company is in the packing and installation, because the installation of the artwork is a huge part of the whole process. We do the forwarding part etcetera, but our expertise shines through in the packing and unpacking and installation, it requires specialist skills and materials and crates,” explains VanGeijtenbeek.

Fine art cannot just be ‘unpacked’. The unpacking process is a detailed series of steps within the wider project of transporting the cargo, along with installation, which also carries its own set of logistics requirements. “You have to be meticulous, especially if it is one of the high-end pieces,” says VanGeijtenbeek. “Before you even open the crate you need to have a plan for where you’ll immediately put the artwork, how you’ll then move it to where it needs to go and put it on the wall if it’s a painting. You really need to think ahead and in that respect our operation is quite different.”

This is even truer of big exhibitions, he says. Crown Fine Art is the logistics partner for the Sheikh Hamdan Photography Award, which includes more than 850 separate artworks that need to be shipped from several dozen corners of the world and installed in a very short window of just a few days.

“The challenges of this increase exponentially when you’re dealing with a major exhibition that requires hundreds of very expensive and rare artworks to be in place in the space of just a few days,” he says. “This also requires different equipment and infrastructure to a regular logistics company. For example, all our vans are not only air-conditioned, but our big 7-on truck is also air-right suspended, which is the industry standard for transporting delicate artwork over land. So when the truck goes over a bump it sags rather than bouncing upward.”

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All the artworks carried by Crown Fine Art are, of course, extremely important and handled with the utmost care, but according to VanGeijtenbeek, there are additional measures that can be put in place at the clients’ request. ”These measure really depend on the client, a museum for example generally has its own courier staff that it sends along with the artwork to stay with it 24/7 during transit,” he explains. “They watch them get loaded onto the aircraft airside and then they fly with the item to the final destination. If the aircraft is diverted or if anything happens during the transit they can then immediately inform the insurance company.”

Some clients also insist on follow cars and armoured vans for the overland transport of the piece. “But what is always required is extensive reporting,” VanGeijtenbeek adds. “You have to keep the client constantly informed of the status of the cargo, it’s delivered to the airport, it’s been placed on the aircraft, it’s been uplifted. We work primarily with Emirates SkyCargo and we do some witness loads at the airport, which means we physically watch the artworks get placed on-board. We recently did a big exhibition in Singapore and all the artworks had to be transited through Dubai, so we were at the airport every night making sure each one made the flight.”

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This witness load reporting is generally favoured by the industry, despite advancements in GPS tracking and telematics. “At Christies we had GPS trackers that we would send with the cargo, but the value of that is somewhat limited. It’s more valuable having a representative there with the cargo to intervene if anything goes wrong,” says VanGeijtenbeek. “The crating for these pieces also tends to be a bit different. You build multiple crates to ensure it’s protected, so you’ll have a crate within a crate and the crates could be bulletproof Kevlar.”

Given the complexities involved in transporting priceless artworks, it’s no surprise that the process of applying for a tender is also multifarious. “When pitching for logistics contracts for these big high-end exhibitions you have to be very specific about the process, so you have to spell out every step of the artworks journey, the protections in place and the measures you’ll take to ensure its safety,” says VanGeijtenbeek. “Then there is the packing and unpacking processes, the painting has to be placed in the crate in a certain way, and removed in a certain way to ensure it isn’t damaged.”

Because of this, there is a lot of training associated with the kind of work that Crown Fine Art does, and often the high-end galleries will award a higher cost tender because they understand that this meticulous planning and handling necessitates a greater cost. “The industry is also very relationship-driven, I sometimes feel that the client buys into me more than the company because they trust me to ensure the safety of their items,” says VanGeijtenbeek. Crown Fine Art’s reach in the Middle East market and wider fine art world is extensive, though. It has 14 offices worldwide, and is the only fine art logistics company with offices in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and agents in Jordan, Lebanon, and most other countries in the wider region.

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According to VanGeijtenbeek, this is in large part because of the emerging nature of the regional fine art market. “The opening of The Louvre, Abu Dhabi has spurred a lot of public interest in the market, but then there is also contemporary art fairs like Art Dubai going into its ninth or tenth year and the museums in Qatar opening,” he says. “But the market can’t be compared to New York, Paris or London, where fine art shippers are more like management companies and outsource everything to specialist sub-contractors.”

 “They manage the trucker, the crater, the packer, the forwarder, because those subcontractors are all specialists in that work, because of the volumes. In this market you need to have a strong in-house team that allows you to do everything yourself to the same high quality,” he says. And a lot of the ‘heavy-lifting’ so to speak, can be in the actual preparation for a project.

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“For a big installation, a large sculpture, or when you’re doing an exhibition with many works coming and a tight deadline, preparation and research is key. You need to have a detailed plan in place to remain on schedule, and you need to have back-up plans, a Plan B and a Plan c. What if customs takes an extra day? What if the venue isn’t ready on time for you to begin installation? What if the plane is delayed?”

The handling and installation element does not get enough attention in the Middle East, according to VanGeijtenbeek. “Anyone can build a nice crate to various specifications and ship it to wherever it needs to go, but what happens when you open the crate? What if it’s really heavy or light? Where are you installing it? How do you ensure that it’s installed safely? That’s where Crown Fine Art stands apart, we really go door to door and nail to nail and we also have a robust insurance protection for the artworks throughout their journey, which is underwritten by Lloyds.”

Crown Fine Art also employs trained art handlers. “This can be a challenge when pitching to clients, because they’ll say another delivery company is so much cheaper, but that company has drivers, we have art handlers,” he adds. “However, we now have a very loyal customer base and its growing steadily.”