Shipping a Velázquez to Paris

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Philip IV

Barbara Ramsay, chief conservator at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, recently met with me to explain how the institution is preparing a portrait of Philip IV painted by Diego Velázquez for shipping to the Grand Palais in Paris. The painting is estimated to be worth forty million dollars, yet Ramsay is confident she’ll get it there and back in one piece.

Barbara Ramsay: This institution has a very active loans program because of the quality of the collection. The Baroque art, of which we have an amazing collection, is in demand.

Tom Winchester- The Velázquez is undoubtedly priceless, will you describe the process of packing and shipping such an artwork?

BR: Once there’s a request for loan the curator considers if the exhibition itself or the scholarship associated with it warrants the risks associated with a loan. We, conservators, look at whether the painting is stable enough, the appearance is appropriate, and if it can travel without a high risk of damage. Once that goes through and it’s approved by the board – the board approves all loans because it’s a big consideration, and it’s a lot of staff time and energy to prepare these works, so we have to take everything in to consideration from all departments – once it’s approved for loan we examine the painting to identify what has to be done before it goes. It may have to be secured in the frame better than it is in storage or on the wall here. Some of the works have to have a plexiglass shield put on in order to protect the surface from damage and control the temperature.

Then we order a crate to be built by a fine art services company that knows what types of materials to use, how much padding, how much insulation, and it has to be built to specific dimensions because the painting that’s in there shouldn’t be able to move around. When it goes out we use fine art handlers who pick up the painting in a truck with air-ride suspension and climate control. There are a lot of people involved at various steps of the process.

With major works of art, part of the deal is whatever museum is borrowing the works pays for the crates, the shipping, and they also pay for couriers. A courier is somebody such as a curator, or a conservator, or a registrar, someone from the institution who actually travels with the work of art. You go in the truck, you go in the plane, you go in the truck again, you get it to the institution, you’re there when it’s unpacked to do a condition report and make sure it gets on the wall safely.

TW: Have you run into any rough patches on the Velázquez? How does it compare to others works you’ve restored?

BR: This painting actually requires very little treatment before it goes on loan. It’s been treated numerous times over its lifetime. There are some minor irregularities on the surface that are visible in certain lights, but on display they’re not disturbing. To eliminate those would require a very involved treatment, a lot of time, and more risk to the painting, so I have to make a judgment call as to what is really essential and what is acceptable. The painting is in exhibitable condition. The frame is flaking a bit – the gilded surface – so we have to consolidate all the little bits of adhesive in certain areas just to set down little flakes of paint so they don’t fall off while they’re travelling.