How To Pack and Ship Fine Art

By Bob Jones, Senior Registrar

Proper Handling Helps to Ensure a Safe and Protected Delivery  

Recently, the Chicago Conservation Center’s shipping department was dispatched to recover a large collection of artifacts at a university in the southwest. The Center’s team of experienced art handlers carefully packed each item to insure safe transportation to our laboratory in Chicago.

After conservation treatment was complete, each of these items was individually housed in order for the client to safely store and handle the collection once returned. A custom archival blue board box was constructed for each artifact. These boxes were then lined with inert museum grade foam suitable for long term storage. A form fitting silhouette of each object was then cut into the foam with a cotton barrier placed into the cavity to prevent the artifacts from being abraded. For long trips , works should be further packed in a cardboard box or, preferably, a custom-designed crate built by a company specializing in this field.

Archival housing, custom-made and fitted for each individual piece, helps to keep works of art secure during storage or shipping.

Although the magnitude of the collection above called for a team of professional art handlers, there are a few guidelines that collectors should follow when preparing to ship or pack fine art. Safe and proper handling can mean the difference between a successful transfer and an unexpected disaster.

  1. Before packing a painting or work of art, be sure that it is secure in the frame and that there are no loose pieces that could potentially damage the art while in transit. Ensure that glassine is not touching the surface of the painting to avoid adhesion to the varnish layer. It is best to wrap paintings in glassine or paper first, which will help to ward off any condensation that might occur from moisture exposure, followed by a protective layer of Mylar or polyethylene. Dartek, a polyester sheeting that “breathes”, can be used with no inner wrapping for short trips.
  2. Do not allow packing material to touch the surface of a painting or work of art. If need be, create a shadow box. Wrap the corners or other exposed surfaces in a thick layer of cardboard followed by a layer of bubble wrap. If a frame seems unstable, remove it and wrap it separately with cardboard and bubble wrap. Paintings should be faced with cardboard.
  3. Do not wrap a painted surface directly in bubble wrap. Put a layer of moisture-resistant material (such as polyehthylene) between the item and the bubble wrap, and apply the bubble wrap with the bubbles facing away from, rather against, the surface. This will prevent the bubbles from denting the item. The outwards-facing bubbles will also be able to better protect the item during transport and prevent the bubble from causing a “honey-comb” effect to a painting’s varnish layer. If you are reusing packing material, make sure that it is clean and free of mold, mildew or debris. It may be worth the small investment to purchase new, clean materials for each move.
  4. Try to ship artwork at the start of the work week versus the end of the work week to avoid over handling. Standard carriers will often store or pile items in a warehouse during weekends. Never roll or fold a painting using a tube. Both techniques require extensive art-handing experience and should only be carried out by conservators or professional art movers.
  5. For short trips it may be tempting to simply wrap a painting in a towel or blanket, but this is generally not a safe method as the surface of the wrapping can scratch the surface of the painting. This is particularly true for items with loose or flaking paint, which should ride uncovered face-up. If the item must be wrapped, it is best to drape it loosely with a polyethylene drop-cloth, available from a hardware store.
  6. If traveling by car, clear the area where the painting will be placed of any items that may come loose and either damage the item or prevent it from riding safely. In warm and humid climates, the vehicle in which the art will be transported should be pre-cooled in order to keep it in a stable environment; in northern areas, it should be preheated.
  7. If a painting has had a long trip or if there is a climatic change in its environment and you suspect that condensation may have occurred, it should be unwrapped as soon as possible. The safest option is to hire professional art movers and packers who use climate-controlled vehicles fitted with a low-vibration “air ride” feature to transport art. During long trips the movers should ensure that the truck is protected and the temperature controlled with alarm systems for overnight stays. If you feel that your painting is not being handled correctly, let the company know of your concerns. It is recommended that professionals entrusted with your collection have had employee background checks which should be routine policy.

Proper packing and handling can prevent damage during transportation.