Art market reporting tends to be more sensationalist than, say, the news about corn futures. Breathless accounts of high-stakes bidding abound, remarkable discoveries of forgotten treasures in thrift shops get big headlines, and who’s up or down and how much money the fluctuation involves become fodder for salacious gossip. Interesting though these tales undoubtedly are, though, they don’t provide a realistic picture of the art business. While they may be less gossipy, some nuts-and-bolts stories away from the headlines can be just as compelling for those with an interest in the art market, and how what we see displayed in our homes, public spaces and cultural institutions depends upon very practical considerations to get there.
Take, for instance, the inherently practical issue of shipping a work of art. It’s all very well to bring a lost masterpiece to market or discover a new artist whose work strikes the right note for the times. Yet if the seller is in Paris and the buyer is in Pacific Palisades, getting the piece safely to its new owner is a bit more involved than simply dropping by the local post office.
Since its launch in 2017, Convelio has become the leading technology-led art shipment company in the world, with offices in Paris, London and New York. Founders Edouard Gouin and Clément Ouizille realized that art-shipment logistics lagged significantly behind that of other types of luxury goods. In most cases fine-art shipping was inordinately expensive, inefficient and dominated by smaller companies whose shipping quotes were often wildly at variance with one another. If you’ve ever purchased an art object and been astonished that the shipper’s quote is as much or more than what you paid for the object itself, you know this situation all too well.
Among Convelio’s hundreds of clients today are many of the world’s major auction houses, art dealers and collectors. Its business model involves using advanced logistics algorithms to calculate the best shipping quote for a particular object, whether that involves land, sea or air transportation. Convelio takes care of arranging everything the buyer or seller needs in one go, such as white-glove handling by its own fleet of specially-designed trucks, recently added to its services in the UK. In 2023 alone, Convelio shipped approximately 35,000 works of fine and decorative art to seventy-five different countries.
“Our commitment is to provide comprehensive art shipping solutions,” explains Convelio CEO Gouin, “and we pride ourselves on being able to handle a diverse range of art objects, from a €5,000 painting to a €2-million sculpture.”
Transporting works of art involves dealing with a nearly infinite variety of shapes and materials, not just flat, square paintings or wooden panels. There are sculptures, antique textiles, fragile ceramics. Even apparently simple pieces may be unusually large or delicate; there are often climate and humidity control requirements.
Sculpture, for example, requires careful thought before it’s moved, particularly when the piece must first be disassembled and then reassembled once it arrives at its destination. “One of our longest-standing clients is a French gallery specializing in rock crystal and amethyst sculptural lightings,” notes Gouin. “Due to their size and fragility — crystal being extremely sensitive to any kind of light shock — it’s critical to thoroughly assess the chandeliers before removing the individual pieces, packing each of them separately, and crafting a made-to-order ISPM- 15-compliant crate to hang the chandelier frame in during international transport.”
The international shipment of art has changed quickly in the recent past — not only are works less likely to simply be loaded onto a ship (crossed fingers all around for safety), many countries have far more stringent and complex export regulations for art objects than a century ago.
In 1931, American financier and National Gallery of Art founder Andrew Mellon wanted to purchase Francisco Goya’s famous portrait of the Marquesa de Pontejos, today perhaps the best Goya in the National Gallery’s collection. As author David Cannadine recounts in his (superb) biography Mellon: An American Life, at first “the Spanish government threatened to withhold an export license, obligating [Mellon’s dealer] to send an agent who ‘had to bribe several persons’ in order to obtain it.” Getting a work of art from one country to another often involved a series of shady transactions considered part and parcel of doing business in the international art world.
By comparison, while Gouin is not fazed by a serious challenge to get something particularly fragile or unwieldy from point A to point B, he is adamant that international regulations affecting the trade in works of art must be complied with if a buyer or seller wants to do business with his firm. And it’s not just the old backhander issue, either.
These days, Gouin explains, “if an artwork involves materials from protected species, we adhere to the necessary CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] formalities. There are exceptional cases where geopolitical factors come into play, such as artworks — or even pieces within artworks — that are subject to embargoes. In these instances, we will be required to decline the transportation.” Issues of provenance and ownership, always important in matters of value, are also front and center these days, with questions in particular about the legitimate acquisition of art and artifacts during periods of war — such as the many possessions stolen from Europe’s Jews in the 1930s — and colonialism, such as tribal and indigenous artworks from Africa. While these are more often heard of in the context of museum collections, they arise as well in the transfer and documentation of privately sold and transported works.
Convelio also avoids being a party to the old scam, practiced as long as there has been art by sellers, shippers and buyers alike, in which a false bill of lading describes a valuable art object as something much more commonplace. “More than once, we’ve been asked to declare fake values at customs to reduce taxes and duties, which we’ve always refused,” Gouin insists.
Moving an enormous work of art — Convelio has moved installation pieces as large as thirty-three feet high — is not something most people will ever have to worry about, since it’s not exactly the sort of thing that one hangs over the sofa. But it has become an increasing consideration for collectors and art fair organizers. Over the past several decades some works of contemporary art have become far more complex, logistically speaking. They don’t have to be big to be challenging: Gouin recalls that in one recent instance, Convelio had to transport an artwork consisting of 5,500 small pills, each of which had to be individually numbered, packaged, transported and then re-installed.
“Contemporary art pieces may require special handling due to unconventional materials or forms,” Gouin admits, “but traditional artworks like Impressionist paintings also need careful transportation. The nuances of each artwork type necessitate tailored transportation solutions.”
It’s no surprise that, when you move tens of thousands of artworks every year, you not only get a sense of what people are buying, but also of where these objects are ending up.
Recent rumors in the art press have suggested that up-and-coming younger collectors around the world are starting to abandon the Contemporary art market, becoming more interested in traditional pieces such as Old Master paintings and antiques. These areas of the art market have generally seen slower growth, even contraction, since their most recent vogue in the late 1980s, and Gouin says he has only seen minor evidence of renewed interest in them; he doesn’t expect a sea change anytime soon.
“The art market is dynamic, and collector preferences can shift,” he says. “We have seen an increase in quotes requested for antique decorative arts — more so than for Old Masters. Contemporary art remains a dominant force for our business, and there is a growing trend in design, evident across galleries and auctions in recent years.”
Whatever they’re acquiring, there’s no question that younger, international collectors will have a significant impact on the art world in unanticipated ways. The relative ease of buying and selling art online conduces to building important collections in places where it didn’t happen often.
“Overall the art market is global by essence simply because the ‘goods’ traded are unique,” Gouin observes, “and you can’t find a local alternative to, let’s say, a specific painting by Cézanne or Bacon. Hence, shipping in the art market will always exist. Now that being said, the intensity of this trade can be made easier or more difficult by local regulations, logistical and regulatory hurdles associated with customs, taxes and import/export restrictions. We’ve seen this with Brexit, which underlined how national boundaries — specifically the regulatory decisions related to them — can significantly impact the art market’s fluidity.”
The long-term impact of a larger, more heterogeneous class of major collectors world-wide may not be felt for some time. But one may reasonably assume that eventually some of today’s younger collectors (or their heirs) will be donating their collections to cultural institutions. Despite the fact that Convelio has already played an indirect part in building up those collections, Gouin is modest about the company’s impact on the future.
“There are examples of museums being built in historically underserved areas,” Gouin notes. “I frankly don’t believe that this is linked to speed, but rather to the economic growth some regions are experiencing. Because some regions are getting richer, some collectors or communities are re-investing their proceeds in developing a local cultural offering, which is great to see.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.