Art shipping is an obscure and intriguing subsector of the industry. Shrouded in (often deliberate) mystery and veiled from clients and collectors, it is nonetheless integral to the smooth running of the fast-moving and increasingly global market. Behind the apparently seamless transition of artworks from one international art fair, gallery or auction house to another is a complex system of moving parts – and an active employment market.


The moving of artworks is fraught with physical and legal difficulties that only increase with age, fragility and value, usually navigated with the help of at least one specialist agency and numerous rigid processes. Means of packing and transport are dependent on the unique nature of each artwork, where it’s going and why, so the vast majority of shipments require bespoke solutions. Packing to museum standards can involve purpose-built crates to ensure shock and climate protection during transport, and artworks can be transported either via air freight, sea freight, road freight, or hand carried by a dedicated courier on a passenger jet (in which case it will have its own seat or two in business class) depending on its dimensions and media. Art freight vehicles are usually climate- and humidity-controlled, satellite-tracked, fully-alarmed… and have excellent suspension. Moreover, the legal requirements for transporting artworks internationally are complex and usually require extensive documentation, certification and customs clearance, especially when works are travelling on a short-term basis, or when their return isn’t determined in advance.


For many galleries, dealers, collectors and auction houses, specialist arts logistics companies offer the perfect outsourced solution to such issues, and will oversee everything on their behalf from insurance, condition checks and customs paperwork to unpacking and installing at the other end. Such shipping companies work with all manner of arts businesses and individuals and are generally organised into departments according to client type and service, with large teams dedicated to preparing objects for transit, overseeing transport, warehouse storage and managing client relationships. A good working relationship between shipping company and client is key to both parties– most clients will stay loyal to one particular agency, especially if they prove to be particularly efficient and/or good at problem-solving and provide regular work for the agency.

Much as communications agencies provide excellent breadth of experience in terms of clients and briefs, similarly logistics agencies can be a fantastic training ground for a later move in-house, and indeed many galleries and dealers employ at least one dedicated Registrar to oversee shipping and logistics – especially if the business has more than one international space. These in-house shipping experts will usually work closely alongside logistics companies to ensure that the most desirable pieces are at the right fairs on time, respond to last-minute demands from directors and salespeople, and navigate import taxes with the help of bonded warehouses.

The movement of artwork in and out of the UK is one area of the market which will without doubt be profoundly affected by Brexit. A no-deal Brexit will mean we no longer benefit from free circulation within the EU, and artworks travelling between European countries and the UK will need to go through the same customs procedures as currently apply to non-EU countries, requiring additional costs and administration, and inevitably resulting in major delays on all incoming and outgoing artworks. In anticipation, many galleries and dealers have already shipped their inventory to European sites – and some even have plans to close their UK spaces. Perhaps a more appealing alternative for the London art market is the prospect of reducing (or removing entirely) its current, highly competitive import tax of 5%, and becoming a free port – although this prospect has already sparked concern and opposition amongst European dealers.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit and its effects on the art world, it will be down to shipping experts and registrars to continue the smooth, speedy and cost- effective movement of artworks across the globe. As professionals who regularly bear the responsibility for invaluable artworks and contend with disasters including breakage, airline delays and irreparable damage, a good registrar or shipper is practical, proactive and a problem-solver – so if anyone can handle the fallout, they can.



Samuel Zeller via

Monterey Museum (Chuck Close) image: Trip Advisor – Family Day activities – Picture of Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey