Lost luggage is annoying. Lost museum artefacts? Unthinkable. And when minor turbulence could cause millions of dollars’ worth of damage, transporting priceless paintings becomes a military-grade operation.
Or multiple operations, as is the case this month, with numerous art shows descending on Hong Kong, from Art Basel and Art Central to the Cathay Pacific sponsored exhibit at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, which details Sino-American trade between 1784 and 1900.
For this particular exhibit, irreplaceable artefacts had to be transported from US museums – including items from George Washington’s White House dinner service.
It’s not simply a case of wrap, pack and send. David Barquist is the curator of decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His work starts with condition reports for each item. ‘The museum’s conservator and I note down any marks or imperfections so that when we unpack the pieces we know the pre-existing blemishes,’ he says.
Depending on the piece, a conservator may need to accompany the consignment so they can remedy an issue on the spot. But in this case, the majority of artefacts were ceramics: six crates of porcelain, plus three crates of silver from The Met in New York, which can’t be repaired offsite.
The items were packed in cases specially lined to fit each individual piece, and the journey began. Barquist travelled from Philadelphia to New York on the truck with his consignment, and on to JFK International Airport. ‘We watched everything being palletised in the cargo area,’ he says. ‘I made sure it was all secured to the pallet and wrapped in plastic.’
Due to airport security measures, Barquist must entrust cargo agents with the necessary clearance to load shipments onto the aircraft, but waits for confirmation before he boards: ‘What you don’t want as a courier is to get on and go if the shipment isn’t onboard.’
On arrival in Hong Kong, Barquist made his way to the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal to supervise the loading onto trucks and rode with the crates to the museum, where they were unpacked and the condition inspected. The courier’s last job is to accompany the museum’s in-house security as the pieces are put in the showcase. Thankfully, according to Barquist, ‘this trip went very smoothly’.