An interview with Philippe Knecht, museum logistics expert.

What is an art courier and what do they do?

Philippe Knecht :  Art couriers accompany fine art in transit, supervising each stage of handling – from the time the art is transferred into their care until it is put on exhibit in the client’s chosen location. Couriers may make only one trip, for instance to deliver purchased artwork to its new owner. Exhibitions, however, require couriers to supervise transportation of artwork both there and back. They generally use the same mode of transport – lorry or aeroplane – as the entrusted works of art, transported in crates. When travelling by air, art couriers ensure that airline crew handle and load the crate or crates with due care and attention. The decision whether to hire a courier is made by the artwork owner, while the exhibition organiser pays for the courier’s travel expenses such as hotels, meals and daily allowances.

How has the work of an art courier changed over the last decade or two?

Philippe Knecht :  The last twenty years or so have brought about significant changes. In the 1980s, art couriers spent a lot of time overseeing handling by airline staff. They ensured that merchandise was loaded into the correct aircraft, and properly moved and secured on board – but not before verifying the security and appropriateness of temporary storage locations first. Back then, dense fog or heavy snowfall could sometimes cause aeroplanes to be rerouted to a different airport than the original one. In this case, the courier worked with a local company to store the artwork temporarily and, if appropriate, send it by lorry to its final destination.

Nowadays, couriers are generally present only when crates are loaded and unloaded on the tarmac, which requires special airport authorisation. They also confirm that all steps of the digital process have been completed. As bar-codes have replaced the large adhesive labels previously affixed to crates, it is especially important to check that the actual and intended destinations match, particularly at the start of a trip.

Security measures have also evolved, with airports and cargo terminals subject to ever more stringent rules limiting warehouse access. In some cases, couriers are no longer permitted to enter warehouses or step out onto the tarmac. When this occurs, a representative of the transporting company must step in and manage the shipment.

When it comes to long-distance road journeys, it is becoming increasingly rare for a courier to physically escort the artwork from beginning to end. Instead, the courier travels by plane after making sure that the cargo has been loaded and that the lorry has departed as planned. They then confirm the cargo’s arrival at the final location. For one-day hauls, however, the courier often rides in the vehicle, particularly when accompanying fragile or valuable objects. They also monitor crate handling and unloading upon arrival. Crates are usually stored in the exhibition venue for 12 to 24 hours in order to prevent any damage from drastic climatic variation. Once this period is over, the courier watches as the crate is opened and verifies the condition of the artwork.

A courier’s work is finished once the painting is hanging on the wall, or the sculpture is safely situated on its pedestal or in its glass case.

Does Expositions Natural Le Coultre provide art courier services?

Philippe Knecht :  Institutions or individuals will sometimes ask us to organise conveying. After obtaining agreement from the exhibition’s host – in other words, the party paying for the courier service – we select someone from our packing department to assume the packing and courier duties and place the artwork on display at its final location.

Although we have reduced the scope of our courier services for the aforementioned reasons, transportation security is still a key concern. We continue to offer insurance covering all types of risk and recommend that a courier be hired for certain key activities. For example, when unpacking a sculpture or other extremely fragile object, it is recommended to have in attendance the courier who helped pack the work of art in the first place, as they will be able to direct the process properly.

Finally, we continue to recommend that a specialist supervises the loading of passenger or cargo aeroplanes. Improper handling is always a risk, while freight-processing errors such as incorrect labelling or misrouting can cause tremendous headaches in terms of repatriation as well as other risks and logistical issues. As a result, artwork lenders or owners ask us to provide these specialist monitoring services, which we do regularly.

Philippe KnechtPhilippe Knecht

Managing Director of Expositions Natural Le Coultre SA, a company of the Natural Le Coultre network, and expert in public and private exhibition logistics, chiefly for museums and foundations.