The neighborhood is going down. The rent is going up. The job transfer finally came through. There's an endless number of reasons people move from one place to another, and some do it so frequently that they just hold onto the cardboard boxes.

Thankfully, it's a simple matter to pack up most household items and haul them around. Even delicate items need only be cushioned well before they're moved.

Except for works of art.

How you pack and move artworks can mean the difference between a treasured possession arriving at its destination whole or in pieces. Even when art objects are well-padded, disasters can occur:

*A light bump can cause paint to fall off a canvas, or permanently unbalance a sculpture.

*The glass covering a print can shatter and tear the artwork underneath.

*A frame may break, creating a pull on the canvas.

The more one moves, the greater the likelihood of just such damage occurring. But the danger can be minimized by selecting a reputable mover, putting everything in writing and requiring certain kinds of care.

"You can strap a painting into the back seat of your car and hope you don't hit any potholes along the way," says John Buchanan, registrar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, "but there are safer ways to do it."

Those ways can also be considerably more expensive: the Metropolitan regularly spends more than half a million dollars a year moving objects from one place to another. The cost is high because of the risks.

Choosing a mover is the collector's first hurdle. "Outside of the major urban areas, there are very few commercial movers who know anything about how to pack or move works of art," says Buchanan. "You really take your chances with some of them." The best bet, he says: calling local museums for referrals. There are a number of national van line companies regularly used by museums, and they are equipped to provide a certain level of insurance coverage for valuable pieces. But most collectors and museums get insurance elsewhere.

Certain other factors also determine the cost -- where the shipment is going, the time of year, the amount of insurance one places on the objects and how they are to be cared for along the way.

"Moving can be so traumatic to people -- I know it is for myself -- that they let movers have their own way because they just want it over with," says Shelley Riceman, a conservator at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. "But you shouldn't make any inappropriate compromises. If you see something that worries you, just say 'no.' "

The most expensive way to ship is with exclusive-use, humidity- and temperature-controlled vans, but only the wealthiest collectors and top-rank museums generally go this route. The crates used for New Zealand's "Te Maori" exhibition that toured the United States last year were themselves climate-controlled, airtight boxes, lined with silica gel and brought to 55 percent relative humidity in a laboratory and maintained at that state throughout the tour.

More often, collectors will ship valuable works by air, as the storage cabins of most planes are pressurized and environmentally controlled to degrees that are not destructive to most artworks.

Less expensive than the controlled-climate vans, shipping by air can still be costly, since airlines charge by dimension rather than by weight, says Del Gutridge, registrar at the Cleveland Museum of Art. "You might be sending a small print, and the box you put it in may be very light, but the airlines go by the size of the box -- which can be large if the print needs to be carefully cushioned."

Many owners ask to have their most fragile and valuable objects shipped in wooden crates. For sculptures, this is almost mandatory. Crates can be built at a cost of between $100 and $1,500, depending on how careful one wishes to be. The cost can be great because crates often are extraordinarily heavy, built as they are to withstand shock. A 250-pound sculpture, for instance, may need 1,200 pounds of crating material.

A crate is relatively easy to make. It is a simple box, reinforced with one- or two-inch plywood, lined with waterproof paper and a layer of polyurethane foam. One must make sure that objects do not bang against the sides, but are fitted snugly inside the crate. Screws, rather than nails, should be used to attach the lid of the crate; hammering may jar the works one is aiming to protect. Some conservators also suggest coating the outside of the crate with oil paint as a sealant against rain.

Most museums take crating very seriously, having some basement area where they are made, and it is also one of the most expensive undertakings these institutions are involved in. An exhibition last year at the Art Institute of Chicago of 10 three-dimensional constructivist paintings by Ger Van Elk cost the museum $12,000 to crate and transport -- or $1,200 a painting.

Whatever method of moving is chosen, experts recommend that collectors resolve well in advance with the mover the amount of insurance and other specific instructions on how the art objects should be handled. This should be put in writing. It is generally recommended that collectors arrange their own door-to-door insurance coverage, although the van lines companies are equipped to provide a certain level of coverage for valuable art objects.

And once that's done, you can further minimize chances of damage by taking additional precautions when packing. Among them:

*Remove the hanging devices from behind a painting -- the screws and wires -- and take the picture out of the frame. This is a simple step, but an important one: Both the canvas and frame may expand and contract under certain climatic conditions, brushing against each other, which may knock off some of the paint. Museum conservators often recommend putting some felt or foam between the frame and canvas, then wrapping it all up in brown paper. This provides protection against dirt and dust as well as cushions a small bump.

*If the picture is covered by a sheet of glass, consider placing a couple of strips of tape across it, securing the glass in one place if it breaks rather than shattering over the work.

The tape may leave a residue on the glass when it is later removed; this may be tricky to remove, especially if it is on ultraviolet plexiglass, whose glazing material can be damaged by the potent chemicals in some household products. Those chemicals, by the way, also give off vapors which may equally damage the art. The tape residue should be removed with hexane or mineral spirits, dabbed on a cotton ball; nail polish remover is also usable, though not on ultraviolet plexiglass.

*Works can also be cushioned with bubble wrap, which is available at many hardware stores, though the entire package should be wrapped again in brown paper because bubble wrap is difficult to tape down securely. One problem with bubble wrap is that it tends to retain heat and moisture, which may harm the artwork.