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The art of flying freight

By Adina Solomon on March 31, 2014

Lawrence Fine Arts Services uses air cargo to transport art almost daily.

Most people know that Chinese consumers are growing richer. But Dick Drossler knows that they have also been purchasing more artwork.

People in the country are buying small Chinese objects such as bowls and jade carvings at auctions, says Drossler of Lawrence Fine Arts Services in San Francisco.

“The people in China are just buying art here like crazy in order to bring back to China, and that whole market is just really blooming,” says the president and owner of the art freight forwarder. “People want things that are part of their heritage that were sold out of the country decades or even centuries ago, so some of the pieces being sold at auction are old.”

Lawrence Fine Arts uses air cargo to transport art almost daily, Drossler estimates. He says the company uses FedEx for smaller pieces, but more expensive pieces – particularly ones destined for museums – usually ship as belly cargo.

Compared to oceanfreight, moving art by air tends to be more secure the whole route and is faster. Drossler also doesn’t choose ocean travel for some art because of humidity on the boat.

And for Lawrence Fine Arts, ocean is not necessarily less expensive than air.

“The port charges at both ends often just about balance out the cost difference,” Drossler says.

Besides China, the company has also seen more activity in the Middle East.

One of the biggest challenges for airfreighting art is timing. Artists often don’t complete their work in time, which presents problems since Lawrence Fine Arts’ crate shop builds custom crates for artwork.

“On the one hand, we have the absolute deadline of a show opening, and then on the other hand, we have an artist who isn’t finished in time,” Drossler says. “So the challenge is to get a crate made quickly enough so that it can be shipped.”

Oversized artwork is another issue for Lawrence Fine Arts. Because San Francisco doesn’t have scheduled freighter service, the company must move cargo to Los Angeles, adding another step to the supply chain.

Drossler adds that clients sometimes give only two dimensions for a painting, but there is a third dimension to take into account when creating a crate.

As Drossler talks about the rare and expensive artwork that his company ships around the world, he mentions a perk of the business.

“We see stuff that normally if you got too close in the museum, the guard would shoo you away.”