By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006
The spring auction season is nearly over, and that means the super-rich have once again spent unholy sums on wall hangings. More than $600 million has already changed hands, with a Picasso, a van Gogh and a Lichtenstein among the biggest prizes.
Now the winners face a question that few of us will ever have the good luck to ask: Once you buy an object worth a fortune, how do you haul it home?
A minivan and a poker buddy won't do. But a quiet little industry stands ready to help.
You don't hear a lot about the fine-art moving business, because it generally shuns publicity and rarely advertises. Some top-tier firms, such as James Bourlet in Long Island City, don't have Web sites, nor do they hang any signs on their doors. Others, like U.S. Art in Boston, run Web sites that are so primitive it seems as if they don't expect visitors. ("You've made it," the U.S. Art home page says in an old-school crawl. "Welcome to the finest transportation resource in the world!")
Clients in this realm tend to treasure discretion as much as art, which, for anyone with a Rembrandt in the den, makes a lot of sense. Several companies wouldn't even return a phone call to discuss their work. Other executives would chat with one simple condition: no names. Not their name or the name of the firm. A handful agreed to talk on the record.
All were asked to describe the journey that likely awaits the year's most nattered-about canvas: "Dora Maar au Chat," an oil painting by Picasso that recently sold for $95.2 million, the second-largest wad ever dropped at an auction. (Nitpick alert: Adjust prices for inflation and "Dora" is actually fourth, with a van Gogh called "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," sold 16 years ago, No. 1 at today's equivalent of $116.7 million.)
Predicting the route of "Dora" requires some speculation because the identity of the buyer is a mystery that has the art world atwitter. What's known is that on May 3, a middle-aged, dark-haired man turned up at the impressionist auction at Sotheby's and waved a paddle around until everyone cried uncle. Or murmured uncle, really. Nobody had ever laid eyes on this guy, who reportedly spoke with a Russian accent and bid like a rookie. (He waved vigorously, for starters. Totally frowned upon.)
The leading theory is that Waving Man represented any number of Russian billionaires. Matthew Weigman, a spokesman for Sotheby's, politely declined to discuss "Dora" or her buyer.
Let's suppose, though, that the painting is Russia-bound. How would it get there? The short answer is: in a hurry. Every art buyer, especially every super-rich art buyer, wants the goods yesterday. It's possible that "Dora" has already left the country, but for the sake of simplicity, we'll imagine it is still awaiting pickup.
Once selected, the company would dispatch a conservator to Sotheby's to assess the condition of the painting and its readiness for travel. The painting would also be measured for a custom case, the likes of which you won't find at a UPS Store. It's a box within a box within a box, basically. One box is lined with Tyvek, a DuPont product designed to keep moisture out that is hugely popular in the home-construction business. Acid-free foam, to provide temperature insulation, lines another.
The case would then be brought to Sotheby's, where it would sit for at least a few hours -- preferably a whole day -- so that its interior would acclimate to the 55 percent humidity in the climate-controlled rooms of the auction house. That's the ideal amount of atmospheric water vapor. When it was showtime, plenty of bubble wrap, or something like it, would sheath the painting, which would then be inserted into a travel frame, which would slide into that foam-lined interior case, which would then be loaded into the wooden crate lined with Tyvek.
All the while, a moving-company employee would snap photos. "You document everything to make sure you're covered," says Graham Stewart of Art Crating, a fine-art mover based in Brooklyn. "There are some major personal-liability issues involved in handling a piece of art like this."
The painting would then be carried to a truck stationed at the Sotheby's loading dock. The vehicle will certainly be equipped with air-ride suspension, for maximum smoothness, and a satellite tracking system, for maximum tracking. The truck would almost surely be unmarked -- no "Honk if you love Matisse" bumper stickers, no nothing.
The anti-theft approach here is the very opposite of the Brinks-truck strategy. Instead of a vehicle that says "vault" secured by men who say "I have shotgun," the idea is to remain as invisible as possible, on the theory that if nobody knows what you're moving, you won't be robbed. There are dozens of fine-art movers in the United States and many of them move hundreds of pieces a day. All this cargo crisscrosses the country unnoticed.
Almost surely, the owner of "Dora" would ask for armed security, so the truck would be trailed to the airport by a "follow car" -- typically an ex-cop working for a security firm.
In all probability, the ex-cop won't be needed because art-in-transit thievery is extremely rare. The only case anyone can remember is the recent, colorful case of the hopelessly inept Patrick J. McIntosh, who was arrested on May 3 in a trailer park in Florida after disappearing for a couple of weeks with a truckload of art that he had been hired to deliver. Among the valuables were seven works by the American modernist Milton Avery and an assortment of sculpture and antiques. McIntosh was so chilled-out about this caper that it's unclear if he actually intended to cash in or was merely making a lengthy pit stop to visit a woman described as his "baby's momma's sister."
This inside job notwithstanding, robbery is actually second or third on the list of worries. Unlike diamonds, a Picasso is difficult to fence. Higher up is anxiety about damaging the goods and getting them to their destination on time. Some clients send their own jets, but that is rare. When the object is small enough to fit into carry-on luggage, it is often toted on board by a courier with a first-class ticket. Several veterans of the business have stories about security guards getting quick private shows in side rooms at airports.
"If they want to examine my bag, which happens a lot these days, I ask for privacy and they always understand," said one frequent flier. "Some of them really get a kick out of it. You get a lot of oohs and aahs."
"Dora" is too big, and too valuable, for the overhead rack or a seat of her own. She is likely to be loaded into a commercial or cargo jet. (For a courier on a cargo jet, jump seats are usually available. Not recommended for the easily nauseated.) A painting is usually supposed to travel the same way that it is hung -- no reason to make gravity an enemy with goods this precious -- so "Dora" will be upright the whole trip.
She probably won't lack for company. As an extra precaution, the buyer is likely to send a representative of his own. Joanne Heyler, director of the Broad Art Foundation, has tagged along with many of the paintings lent out by her employer, which is based in Los Angeles and known for its collection of modern and contemporary art. It's work she doesn't exactly relish.
"You spend a lot of time in a cold [airport] warehouse, night and day, watching a crate, which isn't doing anything exciting, which better not be doing anything exciting," she says. "It's basically guard duty."
The big peril, she says, are forklift drivers who move the merchandise from warehouse to aircraft. The crates are put on pallets and moved by drivers who are usually up against a deadline. Heyler recalls a Malcolm Morley painting that she momentarily thought was about to be shish-kebabbed by a French forklifter.
"They spear things -- it happens," says Bryan Cooke of Cooke's Crating and Fine Arts Transportation in Los Angeles. "I've heard of maybe half a dozen examples, which isn't a lot when you realize how much art is shipping every day."
Once "Dora" gets to Russia, that is where the fun begins. The way fine-art movers talk about that country makes it sound a little like the Wild West, but more corrupt.
"There are two airports that service Moscow, and we're told to use one airport sometimes and the other airport other times," says Jonathan Schwartz of Atelier 4 in Brooklyn. "Fortunately, our freight-forwarding manager speaks Russian. The reality is that one has to have close government ties to navigate those murky waters."
One also has to have AK47 assault rifles. Schwartz expects that "Dora's" trip from airport to Chez Billionaire won't be discreet. Cars in front of and behind the truck, he says. A helicopter isn't out of the question.
Then, home at last. The price for all this? There are dozens of different options available, so estimates are difficult. "Nail to nail service," which would cover all the customs paperwork, all the moving and even some help with hanging, could cost from $6,000 to $10,000. Insurance sold separately. Clients either buy their own or leave that to the mover, who adds it to the bill.
If this job sounds like a recipe for acid reflux, apparently it is.
"We're glorified movers, but I'm not sure where the glory is," says Stewart of Art Crating. All 35 of his employees hold a master's degree in fine arts, he says, which means not just that they have a reverence for the product but a passion about it that is one of the few frissons of the job.
Otherwise, it's mostly about fretting. There is traffic to endure, flights to make and the ever-present, if faint, possibility that someone will gouge the Renoir. Plus a lot of impatient clients accustomed to getting what they want when they want it. Then little things, like the way cargo airlines always unload the perishable food first, because perishable food is the airlines' lifeblood. Try explaining that to a billionaire who is waiting for a Picasso.
"They don't understand," says a moving veteran. "The painting might cost $95 million, but it's not coming off before the tomatoes."