Interview with Franz Rixgens
Franz Rixgens has been a fine art packaging and shipping specialist since 1978. He was co-founder of an art packing & shipping company in Germany in the 1990ies, and as such has steered the development of fine art packaging in general, and specialized in the contribution of shock-reduction and vibration-control technologies for the art packing and shipping sector. In 1990 he invented the first sector specific database PC network application, which middle of the 1990’ies was used by all major shipping companies in the DACH-region. He is working now for Crown Fine Art as a Key Account Packaging & Shipping Consultant. He has an apprenticeship as shipping expert, and holds the degree of a Business Economist from the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
What are the greatest challenges of shipping/transporting a piece of art?
Every work of art is unique, which is simply the biggest differentiation to almost every other item to be packed and shipped. In that respect the tolerance zone – in any aspect - is zero. Original works of art as well as historical and archaeological collection items of any kind are unrecoverable memories of mankind, in many cases also endowed with the status of a cultural heritage collection item.
So, the greatest challenge is to pack and ship artwork in a way that will not be exposed to any environmental hazard.
What was the most demanding job you had to accomplish?
What is a “demanding job”? A packing & crating job at one place can be routine, whilst packing the same artwork at another place might be a big challenge. I have packed and shipped items of all kind from remote places like the mountains of Armenia, helicoptering a 2-tons gravestone in winter down to Jerevan. I have packed excavation objects from various archeological sites in Pakistan under 40 degree Celsius conditions. We have moved artworks too big to be transported with any standardized trucks.So, there were several “most demanding jobs”. To name but a few:
“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci is the second famous work of this artist after “Mona Lisa”. This work was lent by The Czartoryski Museum (Kraków, Poland) for a 3-venue-exhibition tour in Scandinavia. The owner request was for a concept of a packaging crate, which was defined as a “fire-resistant and floatable museum quality clima case”. The challenge was to develop something entirely new, which nobody had thought of until that day.
“The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” by French painter Gustave Manet, is a huge yet extremely fragile oil on canvas (H 252 x 305 cm) painting with quite a series of conservational treatments over the centuries. The National Gallery in London planned to assemble all existent versions of that motive in one exhibition for the first time. The German museum owner requested a technical study to proof prior to activities that the canvas could be transported to London with an utmost reduction of shock and vibration whilst in transit. In cooperation with the Technical University in Berlin we developed a test series with a painting dummy, resulting into the fabrication of a combination of a Shock-Reduction-Unit and a Museum Quality Clima Case. We not only proved testwise that shock and vibration can be reduced by 75 % , we also monitored the entire transports and delivered the same requested result.
Crown Fine Art in In Amsterdam recently moved ”The Night Watch” , Rembrandt van Rijn's world-renowned painting, famous for its enormous size and perception of motion. The 363 cm by 437 cm (about 12 ft. by 14 ft.) painting has rarely been moved before. The painting was placed in a temperature and humidity-controlled custom-made quality case, and the box, weighing 2000 kg, was rolled on a dedicated air-wheel equipped aluminium scaffold by manpower.
Can you please explain the process of shipping a piece of art from the beginning to the end?
Art packing consultancy in many cases starts with an onsite visit. For paintings, we mainly identify the correct dimensions of the frame, as often museum database entries are not correct. Many old frames show tendencies to twist or bend over the years, which results in non-rectangular shapes. Such irregular shapes must be covered by an appropriate interior packaging. For the variety of almost all possible objects, our industry has developed a range of materials and methods. Be it dedicated combinations of various kind of foam, regular wooden painting travel frames, elaborated painting hanging –systems up to shock-reducing travel frames.
Whilst for many objects standardized packing can be recommended, especially contemporary art objects create new challenges, be it because of the mixtures of various materials unknown in one context so far, be it because of size and weight.
Shipping a Damien Hirst “shark-sculpture” (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991), which is a combination of glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution. The latter causes the problem, because any transport of formaldehyde solution is limited to specialists for the handling and transport of dangerous goods. Thus, the Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) manual is one of the bibles fine art packing & shipping consultants must have read.
Once the problem, if any, is determined, production of the individual crate will be initialized, mostly in company-own production ships. Almost all Fine Art Shipping specialists do have their own production shops, with a combined pool of experience by wood-, metal and components designers and workers. Networking with engineering specialists of all kind is a common situation.
Whilst many customers provide facility reports for their buildings, and our industry has quite a collection of assorted information, our staff repeatedly must achieve information on new loading, transit and unloading situations, in order to ensure that we have eliminated all possible restrictions in advance.
Once the crate has been delivered to the packing site, experienced art handlers and packers are schedule to the scene, in order to ensure that the packing procedures (as determined by the consultant) will be maintained.
Dedicated art transport trucks will collect the packed artwork, and either truck it to its destination (the so-called “ nail-to-nail service”), or deliver it to next airport, if transcontinental shipping is requested.
As specialists, our sector is also a specialist in airfreight, and in aviation security. Leading sector companies are entitled “Regulated Agents”, certified by the National Aviation Security Agency. This status allows us not only to secure air freight shipments, in some countries, like Germany, this status also allows us to secure an artwork inside the museum, in the very moment when it is packed. We therefore engage Aviation Security Officers, who are personally certified by the National Aviation Security Agency.
The next module is specialists supervising the palettization of airfreight, staying with the artwork until the very moment the aircraft is pulling back to the runway. This specialists also do the socalled tarmac-supervision, which means they follow the pallet - and later on the aircraft - until it is entirely sure, that no technical hazard will lead to a termination of the start procedure ( which in many cases leads to the unloading the cargo).
All subsequent information, like the airfreight pallet number, its loading position, and any other observation will be communicated to the next expert in chain, waiting for this shipment on arrival in order to perform the reciprocal process.
What kind of art is the most difficult to ship?
Due to its nature all kind of earthenware objects are extremely demanding, both in terms of packing and shipping. Whenever we see archaeological collection items, nobody knows in many cases, when and how an ancient pottery had been restored, which glue had been used. When it comes to marble reliefs, we rarely have a chance to x-ray any of such, which means that we are depended of what we can see – and feel. In fact, in some cases, I have discouraged owner of art objects to lend their piece to an exhibition, simply because of the non-accessible inherent risk of moving it. Thus, the most difficult to pack and ship are these objects which no one can provide us an in depth criteria with, or which we simply cannot examine due to their structure
What was the most expensive piece you had to ship?
Our sector has on obligation (towards our customers) not to promote the value of an art object. Generally speaking, we have handled single objects insured for + 100 Million Euro. If you follow then results of art auction sales, one sees exactly objects with values equivalent to what we handle daily. Our sector companies move entire exhibitions, which may total up 1 billion, and more.
What kind of requirements do your means of transportations have to fulfil to deliver a piece safely from A to B? How are they equipped?
Art transport trucks are dedicated builts, nothing from the dealers shop. With the enlarging number and volume of artwork in general, our sector must develop special trucks reaching out for the maximum dimensions agreed by the Community, when working in Europe. Here the standard is 400 cms in height. Which means, that the car-builder really has to be innovative to ensure truck bodies with 2920/300 cms inner height. When it comes to trailers, the target is 315 cms. And a few , very special unites come with vertically useable inner heights of 365 cms, 144 inches !
All units, trucks and trailers, have an airride suspension on both axles. The truck bodies are insulated, normally produced of 100 mm ( about 4 inches) elements. Temperature control, alarmsystem and GPS are imperative. Many units are equipped with hydraulic tail lifts (as large as possible, some measuring 260 x 240 cms ) and with a capacity of up to 3000 Kgs.
Another asset are fine art warehouses. Similar to trucks, a fine art warehouse is a dedicated built. Major sector vendors have their premises controlled by a global acting association, a GRASP- certificate ensures state of the art security measures to any customer.
How does the special packaging look like? What kind of materials do you use for protection?
The range of materials used goes from any variation of cellulose (dedicated craft papers, cartons) via various wooden materials to aluminium and synthetics. As the carbon footprint is a high value also in the world of culture, thus in art shipping, Crown Worldwide and Crown Fine Art have worldwide established the ISO 14001 environmental management system. This does not only mean the reduction of truck fuel by replacing smaller local trucks by electronically fuelled vehicles.
Rental case systems are a common place in the sector since many years, and this goes for almost all service / quality levels of shipping cases. Especially for the very expensive Museum Quality Clima Cases many sector vendors do have large stocks with crates of all sizes. Because of the rental concept, the price per lease is less for a single customer, because for the service provider amortization is gained after 2-3 leases periods. A lease period normally if defined by an average art exhibition period, e.g. 4 months. So, if you are doing your business well, you have break-even after 12 months. And the lifetime of such cases easily is 5 years and more.
Do you have a personal relationship to art?
Having a personal relationship with art is not imperative, as long as the art packing consultants respects the inherent values of the object. I saw over the years many people develop the love to art objects, the more they got into the business. Personally I have a long lasting relationship with artworks, since my first encounters with Joseph Beuys, one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th Century. I met my wife during her internship in a fine art shipping company, and her directing a fine art museum nowadays means that we are surrounded by art, every day.
What kind of education does one need to work in the sector fine art logistics?
Administrative staff comes from all possible sectors. Certainly a business education in any commercial job is preferable, but we also have seen art curators, conservators and others join the team. What is imperative is a sound understanding of metrics, a mental capacity to three-dimensional visualisation, to matrix thinking. Specific sector know how, if now there, must be trained and developed: Customs regulations. Security regulations, Airfreight and Aviation Security,Transport in general, transport modes and routings in detail One good method, besides taking new staff into a trainee programm, is to take them out into the wild, e.g. to packing jobs in museums, galleries, collections. The second good method is the lecture of case studies, which we do internally in order to document (what we have done) and so built the internal knowledge-base.
For blue-collar work the theoretical attic is as important as it is for the office team. On top, art handlers and packing specialists must develop routines in the handling and use of tools, some of them quite specific, and materials.
The Pythagoras theorem is considered a basic knowledge!
What does a company need to be successful in this field?
Like in any other business, the combination of an entrepreneurial concept, an inspirational management team and skilled staff makes the ground for success.
Unlike in other logistics sectors, for the fine art sector one also needs funds in order to built up the business’ infrastructure. Investments in art storage buildings and dedicated fleet are a bigger seven-digit investment, if one looks at one country. For business developers targeting a multiple geographical coverage, the investment will be an eight-digit investment. What makes the difference is that in Europe almost all institutional customers are not willing to accept 4th PL logistic concepts – which simply means, that a company must have its own assets, like art warehouses, trucks, workshops. A high financial investment is an entrance hurdle to the market, the more that educated and experienced staff is rare.
Besides physical assets and educated human resources, information technology is the key to adequate performance. Additionally to basic modules like the CMR, the Order Process Management and Stock Management, terabytes of valuable information about artwork characteristics must be stored in databases. For those working in the packing consultation sector, the Production Modul must be the most thrilling modul at all: artwork criteria (like dimensions and weight) are referred to from the art object database, allowing the Packing Consultant to develop a cast for any type of packaging in the screen. Powered by a material data-base, through a preconfigured set of samples and service classes, routines instantly calculate the price, the weight and external dimensions of any requested sample case. The creation of box-in-box systems is made simple, as is the online check for rental crates from the rental case database, searching for precise identifications, or with given leeway. The lease-history of any rental case leads to artworks formerly shipped in the same case, and from the former artwork one links back to the old project, if requested. Over years the development of this database is crucial, because one not only (in an increasing number of cases) can avoid onsite inspections (because information needed was already stored), we also can run evaluation over thousands of art objects, if we tend to invent something new.
What was the most exotic place on earth you delivered a piece of art to?
In terms of all surrounding factors, working in Pakistan was the most exotic country to collect and deliver objects to. Working in an excavation camp in the Archaeological Ruins in the desert in Moenjodaro, surrounded by unfriendly tribes battling each other, was sure the hottest job ever.