As an insurer, the movement of Fine Art is a cause for concern. The sheer volume of opportunities for damage across the whole chain of transportation means that careful management is required. To delve deeper into the risks of moving art and why it is never worth skimping on taking the right precautions, I recently caught up with James Fielden, Managing Director of K Pak – specialists in the care, handling, and transportation of antiques, artwork, and other high-value items.

NB: James, before you became a partner at K Pak, I had the pleasure of working with you when you were a risk surveyor. With your old “surveyor’s hat” on, what used to raise alarm bells when you visited the premises of shippers and packers?
JF: The safety of fine art is, of course, always a key concern, so shippers and packers must be able to be trusted and relied upon to take the greatest care and have the necessary protocols in place. With that in mind, there were a couple of crucial things which would raise alarm bells immediately:

  • Lack of security – I recall one occasion where I was able to enter the premises, gaining access to the warehouse, without anyone to let me in or check my credentials, which was worrying!
  • Mess – historically, some shippers and packers’ premises would be in complete disarray. The neatness and tidiness of the premises gives a general impression of how organised the whole operation is, so it was always a worry if the site did not look well kept.

NB: What are the biggest risks shippers and packers have to manage?

Without doubt, the biggest risk is handling – how carefully the art is packed and then handled through shipment. As an industry, we see a much greater volume of claims from handling damage than anything else. This often begins with how the art is packed, with different methods of sending requiring different types of packing. There is also an element of theft risk, although this is relatively rare.

NB: As an insurer, we fear sea transits for art due to issues regarding the loading and unloading of containers from vessels, vibration affecting works during rough seas, climatic and atmospheric conditions, and the fact that artwork is sometimes not in a sole-use container. We also face the additional risks of Salvage and General Average, which most clients are completely unaware of. How do you ensure art travels safely by sea?
Your concern is understandable, obviously the transit time (and therefore risk) is much longer by sea than by air. However, although all of what you say above is true, sea freight can be seen as smoother ride. At K Pak, we use sole-use containers, meaning that the container is loaded at our warehouse and routed through to the final destination, where it would be unloaded by our agent or by the same K Pak staff who loaded it. There is therefore less handling and movement of the packages/crates than you would see with air freight - going in and out of the airports, and on and off planes. Sea transits of fine art using non-sole-use containers, meaning items are loaded onto the container at the port and then unloaded at the destination port, involve far more handling. Also, you don’t know what else is in those containers. At K Pak, we always ensure sole use containers – so this isn’t an issue our clients need to worry about.

NB: That’s good to hear. And what about art being transported by air?
JF: In terms of air freight, there are several options utilised: “Standard” air freight (for want of a better word) is where artworks travel underneath the passengers where the height is under 63” and on freighter aircraft (large open fuselage planes used specifically for freight) and can take larger items; and then there are the “courier” services using companies such as FedEx or DHL. Standard airfreight will need to use an agent in the destination country to carry out the Customs clearance documentation, collection from the airport, and delivery to the purchaser. This is used in situations where the purchaser is not able to or does not wish to carry out the unpacking and removal of the crating. It is generally used for larger consignments or for artworks which require a high level of skilled handling due to fragility, size/weight, and value.

The FedEx / DHL option generally uses their freight services (and not the parcel service used for small packages). Items are packed and crated by us and then collected by designated FedEx / DHL freight trucks, so it is not the standard FedEx / DHL vans you see driving around. The advantage of this option is that, generally, it is quicker as it is direct from us to consignee, and is, on the whole, a cheaper option.

Everything we send via air is completely packed and then crated up to the nth degree. We know it has to be packaged correctly in order to remain safe through the transit process.

NB: Whilst in terms of the courier options you tend to use the freight services and you and your agents handle everything else in between, FedEx does also offer art transportation services direct to the public. What are your thoughts on this?
JF: There is nothing to stop a client from opening their own FedEx account (this being the small parcel service or IP, as it is known), placing their art in a box, and arranging for someone to come and pick it up – however, this can very often end in disaster for the art. There is a complete ‘art’ (no pun intended) to packing correctly to avoid damage. For small and lower value items, we will also use the IP service but ensure that the items to be transported are packed and crated sufficiently to endure the transit.

We have specialist processes for packing which ensures maximum protection for the art. We make sure the art is carded/boxed, foamed out, and crated. We use specialist materials and methods to protect the surface of paintings: plastic, glassine, shadow boxing, ribbon, and travel frames are tactics we have been using for years to keep paintings safe and surfaces untouched. We have seen what happens when art isn’t properly packed – including issues with using bubble wrap incorrectly – so it really is a complex process, and I cannot stress enough how important it is that art needs to be entrusted to specialist packers and shippers.

The other point is that specialist packers and shippers understand the multiple parts of the transportation journey and will use dedicated agents for each stage, which the public often don’t have access to.

NB: Thank you James. Your record speaks for itself when it comes to moving art and we value your experienced and reliable approach.

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Related content:
Nick also recently caught up with James Fielden to discuss the impact that both Brexit and Covid-19 have had on the Fine Art market. Read that blog here.

Read the other blogs in our ‘Nick Brett in conversation with…’ series below.