Fine Art Shipping: A Timeline

Laura Edgell, September 26, 2018


Alchemy is lucky enough to work with some of the world’s most famous auction houses and leading galleries; to reflect this we have produced the following ‘Fine Art Shipping Timeline’ with the kind assistance of our learned contact Racine Berkow, Owner and President of Racine Berkow Associates and Lecturer at NYU. Fine Art Shipping is an incredibly niche and specialised industry – but it also has a rich and fascinating origin story which stretches back to the very dawn of human culture… I am therefore delighted to share some of the notable highlights on the journey to today’s Fine Art Shipping industry as we know it.


Art is an ancient concept, inherent within the pre-literate societies of prehistoric man. The earliest human groups were expressing culture through art long before the written word. Whilst leading nomadic lives, ancient peoples would trade and transport creative works amongst other transient communities – this is truly the earliest example of art transport. A beautiful and iconic example of ancient portable art is ‘The Venus of Willendorf’, an 11.1-centimetre-tall limestone sculpture, coloured with red ochre pigment. This Venus figurine (or mother goddess), is estimated to have been carved in 30,000 BCE in Paleolithic Europe and was perhaps carried by its owner as an amulet for luck or fertility.

16th – 18th Centuries

Racing through time, Racine tells us that the next stage of development for Fine Art Shipping “is the history of the victors taking the property of the vanquished and the spoils of war. These “vanquished” goods now form the foundation of many important museum collections”. An example of this is The Benin sculptures, currently housed in the British Museum having been removed from their west African origins by the British Empire as part of a raid in 1897. It was this plundering and subsequent transportation of Benin’s classical sculptures that suddenly lifted the veil on African art, which had long rested beyond the gaze of European audiences.

20th Century

Moving forward we arrive at WWII. Racine explains that “until the 20th century, all artwork had to be transported via ocean. Thus, they were subjected to temperature and humidity fluctuations and possible water damage.” WWII brought the “availability of International Air Transport” and with this new technology “everything changed” in the World of Fine Art Shipping. “Ex unemployed military pilots started cargo airlines that could fly transcontinental and intercontinental routes … Suddenly there was another way to ship irreplaceable art and artifacts that was quicker and safer”.

1970s / 1980s

Jumping ahead to the 70’s and 80’s, art experiences a massive increase in public interest. Racine cites the famed 1972 Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition, first shown at the British Museum. Berkow describes the exhibition as a “diplomatic and artistic coup. It ushered in the era of the block-buster exhibition and transformed art into entertainment. It also used art as a tool of diplomacy”. These days, large art exhibitions are mainstream, popular and accessible to all demographics (as opposed to being reserved for the wealthy or educated). Since the 1980s, in the words of Racine, “Art Fairs have become international entertainment and the place to see and be seen”, resulting in the advent of specific Fine Art Shipping companies.  


In more recent years, Fine Art Shipping and Transportation has been established as a well recognised industry. Expertise and educational materials on the subject were produced. In 1991, The National Gallery of Art published ‘Art in Transit: Handbook for Packing and Transporting Paintings’, which was produced as a theoretical and informative guide for art handlers. Racine builds on this point by highlighting that moving towards the present day “conservators are more aware of how artwork is affected in transport. New and better packing materials have been developed and more sophisticated standards of fine art handling have become the norm”.

The Internet Era

From the invention of the World Wide Web in 1990, to the founding of Google in 1998, knowledge of the Fine Art Shipping industry and tricks of the trade have grown and been shared online by Fine Art Shipping Professionals. The internet has therefore produced an improved service offering for clients, as well as access to a menu of different service providers. Racine adds that “with the spread of the internet and instant communication, there is a greater demand for shipping companies to respond immediately and to be accountable” – this online presence has increased the global reach and accessibility of Fine Art Shipping companies, as well as increasing competition.


Racine draws our attention to the tragic events of 2001; “post 9/11 security regulations have made [Fine Art] shipping far more complex than it used to be. International fine art transport today is a complicated endeavor”. Security is a core concern during any form of international transportation, particularly when the cargo involves highly valuable fine art and antiques, which in some instances are culturally priceless. Racine cautions that “Post 9/11 security regulations have made shipping far more complex than it used to be. International fine art transport today is a complicated endeavor that should be handled by people who have the knowledge and experience to do it properly, professionally, and without incident.” Alchemy’s role is to source professionals with the expertise to carry out this type of transportation.


Increasingly, Fine Art and antique dealers must be aware of the security and trade laws pertinent to the movement of goods internationally. For example, in the UK from 2018, antique dealers will no longer be able to sell ivory goods, the ban will cover ivory items of all ages – not only those produced after a certain date. Limited exceptions to this rule will apply, including the commercial activies of Museums transporting ivory art and antiques if “accredited by Arts Council England, the Welsh Government, Museums and Galleries Scotland or the Northern Ireland Museums Council in the UK, or the International Council of Museums for museums outside the UK”, according to the UK government’s website.  

The Present Day

Finishing up this timeline at the present day, Alchemy looks to the future of the Fine Art Shipping industry. Alchemy’s focus is on the results of Brexit – will no deal Brexit result in added complication for the cross-border transportation of fine art and antiques? It is also vital to consider how modern art is pushing Fine Art Shipping companies to the extreme with regards to what they are required to ship both in terms of legislation and practical packing ability; for example, artist Von Hagens’ travelling exhibition Body Worlds, which displays fragile examples of real human anatomy – an interesting challenge for the relevant art handlers and technicians.

The Future

This timeline demonstrates the long-term presence and on-going adaptability of the Fine Art Shipping industry. The Art World is well-known for pushing boundaries, however, those of us lucky enough to work within this creative industry must try not to lose sight of the fact that these barriers are only crossed with the logistical facilitation of Fine Art Shipping companies; whom take ultimate responsibility for the safe movement and physical sharing of artistic ideas worldwide. We are fully confident in this industry’s ability to cope with the looming changes of Brexit, as well as the technical tests presented by the artists of tomorrow.

Written by Laura Edgell - Head of Fine Art Services at Alchemy Recruitment Ltd.

comments powered by Disqus