Transporting loaned art: Our guide to smoothing bumps in the road

4 minutes

Transporting precious art from your home to a museum or art institution is a logistical weave of insurance, packing, couriering and handling – it is a complex business but with meticulous planning it can be a smooth process.

This guide has been created to show what to expect once a Loan Form has been signed for a piece of artwork to be part of an exhibition. While it is the museum’s responsibility to manage shipping, lenders should always be aware of the details.

Leaving the collector’s premises

Prior to collection, the shipper – always a specialist art shipper, never a general logistics company –should confirm the status of packing with the lender (is there a crate or does a crate need to be made?) and ask them detailed questions about access. Particularly if a work is large, they will need to know what floor it is on, how wide the doorways are, if there is a lift, and what the parking situation is.

Specialist art handlers will arrive at the collector’s property to de-install the work. If the work has an existing crate, it will be crated on site. If not, it will be packed for short transport to the shipping company’s premises where a crate will be made for the piece. Temporary packing will depend on the work.

Outgoing condition reports should also be made at this stage and scheduled accordingly.

Depending on scheduling, and whether single or multiple works are being shipped together, the works might be kept in storage until everything is ready to go at once. All of this will be organised in advance, with detailed information provided to the lender and the museum.

Travelling to the museum

Transport routes will vary considerably. If a work is being transported within Europe, it will most likely go by lorry. This is cheaper and preferable as the artwork will not be exposed to changes in temperature, altitude and pressure on a plane.

Bear in mind that a crate that is sufficient for road transport might not be acceptable for air transport. There are many forms of packing: Single crates, double crates, thermal crates, crates with travel frames. Even the foam inside can be complicated. Some foam is toxic and although it will not immediately harm the work, it gives off chemicals that over time can corrode materials. Collectors should ensure that any legacy crates do not contain harmful foam, and have new crates made if so.

"Art shipping lorries are not your average truck; they are temperature and humidity controlled, with customised shock absorbers and suspension plus security and tracking features."

If the handlers can drive directly from property to property, they will. If they need to stop for the night, they will organise a stop where there is a dedicated art storage facility, so the lorry can be securely parked for the night while the drivers sleep.

A courier might travel with the work – a courier might be the lender’s curator or advisor, the museum’s curator or registrar, or someone whose specific job it is to act as a courier. If so, the courier will be with the artwork every step of the way. If the lorry cannot accommodate a courier due to lack of space, the courier might follow in a car. The courier or the shippers will be updating the lender and the museum along the way.

Within the EU, some border complications are avoided. However, going from the UK or Switzerland, or if the artwork is stored in a freeport or a bonded warehouse (and is therefore not technically in the EU), there are customs formalities to be managed regarding temporary imports and exports for exhibition purposes. The shippers will handle all of this. If the paperwork is not correct, it can cause complications and delays.

Air travel

There is a vast array of factors to consider depending on where the work is going, how large it is and what is planned with couriers or supervision.

If a work is being flown direct on a commercial flight, the art shippers will bring it to the cargo zone of the airport. If there is a courier, they will stay with the crate in the cargo area to observe the work being palleted and physically loaded onto the plane before they board themselves. It is the same again when the work comes off the plane. However, if there is no courier, one of the shippers will carry out the supervision but not get on the plane. The receiving art shipper will supervise it coming off the plane, through customs and onto their lorry at the other end.

When the work is going on a cargo plane, due to the route or if it is too tall to go in the hold of a commercial plane, the process is similar. Cargo planes have a couple of seats on board for couriers and the courier or shipper will document the journey for condition and insurance purposes. Not all airports accommodate cargo planes, so often a work needs to be driven to a larger airport and then flown.

If a work has to change planes – for instance if it is going from Europe to Australia, and there’s a stop in Hong Kong or Singapore – the courier will also supervise the plane change. If there is no courier, a local art shipping company will be engaged to supervise the plane change.

This all requires a great deal of advance planning and permissions to access secure airside cargo areas. It is an expensive exercise.

On arrival

The work will be collected by an art shipper at the other end and driven to the museum. If it has come by air, the crate will sit in the exhibition space for at least 24 hours to acclimatise before being opened. The conservators carry out the incoming condition check and report, and the work will be hung. If there is a courier, they will be present to oversee all of this. The crate will be stored for the return trip.

After the exhibition

At the end of a show all the of the above happens again but in reverse. Collectors will be contacted with a proposed date of delivery and re-installation, and provided with the outgoing condition report.

If it’s a travelling exhibition the whole show will travel at once to the next venue, normally with curators or registrars from one or both museums acting as couriers. With a particularly high-profile or valuable exhibition, police may temporarily close roads and there will be armed escorts accompanying the lorries. Most often, it will be done as quietly and discreetly as possible.

And finally, check every detail

With museum loans, this best practice version is generally the norm, but every detail should always be checked.

"Professional art shipping is expensive and there is a reason for that – it is a complex, delicate business. An artwork is at its most vulnerable when it is being moved so it needs to be handled accordingly."

Art insurance

Most art insurance policies specify that art must be shipped and handled by specialists and will not cover damage or theft otherwise.

For more information on transporting or loaning art call 020 8256 4901 or email

Private curator Sarah Schuster can be contacted through

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