Collectors and dealers of fragile, phenomenally expensive art have never wanted for reasons to stay awake at night. A piece could plunge from a wall. Somebody could stumble into it or step on it or add a new color to it with a splash of red wine. Contemporary art, sometimes made to resemble trash, has occasionally been mistaken for it and thrown away.
But those responsible for safeguarding art will soon have a new category of anxiety, the stuff of real nightmares: the possibility that airline employees could open carefully crated works of art to search them the way checked baggage is sometimes searched now, poking around Picassos instead of sweaters and socks.
The Transportation Security Administration has mandated that beginning on Aug. 1, all items shipped as cargo on commercial passenger airplanes — estimates are that as much as 20 percent of art shipped around the world travels this way — will have to go through airline security screening.
Since last February, airlines have been required to screen half of their passenger-air cargo (and, since late 2008, all cargo on narrow-bodied jets). But shippers say that several categories of cargo, including art, pharmaceuticals, high-tech equipment and perishable food, are almost always passed over when airlines have discretion because of the difficulty of searching such crates should an explosives-residue test or bomb-sniffing dog give reason to do so.
Since news of the requirement began to spread last year, many large museums, like the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles and the National Gallery in Washington have enrolled in a federal program that allows them to create secure screening facilities within their own buildings. In these rooms the institutions can inspect art, crate it and mark it with special seals, locks and tape that will mean that its chances of being rescreened by airline personnel are minuscule. Many large art-shipping companies have also become certified to screen and securely pack art themselves.
Art-shipping experts say that the burden of the new regulations will fall more heavily on galleries and private dealers than on museums, which typically plan exhibitions years in advance and can arrange for shipping that avoids passenger planes. Galleries, on the other hand, often put together shows much more quickly and strike last-minute deals for buying and selling art that can mean that a piece in New York needs to be in Zurich or Beijing the next day.
“And so you have a Ming vase in special foam, and an airline subcontractor has to take that out and then repack it because he got a false positive on an explosive swab test,” said Mary C. Pontillo, an assistant vice president of the DeWitt Stern Group, an insurance brokerage that deals extensively with fine-art clients. “It’s a big understatement that that’s something you don’t want to happen.”
In January Dewitt Stern conducted a seminar in New York for dealers to help spread the word about the new rules.
Jan Endlich, the chief registrar for Cheim & Read, the Chelsea gallery, which sends about half of its art shipments as commercial passenger-plane cargo, said in an e-mail message that “the beauty and horror of a gallery situation is just how quickly and last-minute it can react, and change course.”
But he and others in the gallery world said that even large galleries were unlikely to set up their own secure facilities under the federal screening program because of the requirements of space and resources, and so will rely on art-shipping companies that have become certified screeners. This will add time and cost to shipping art, some of which is now crated in-house, and sometimes in collectors’ own houses.
Andrea Wood, who runs an art management company based in New York, once traveled the world as a courier of artworks on passenger planes. She said it was common for her to watch a work be crated right off of a collector’s wall, to get in the van with it and accompany it straight to the airport, where, before 9/11, she could stand on the tarmac and see it loaded into a jet’s hold.
“I was there from nail to nail on both sides of the trip,” she said. “That’s not going to happen anymore.”
John McCollum, the international shipping manager for Stebich Ridder International, an art-shipping company that has been certified by the federal government to screen cargo, said another complication the art world would encounter involved the frequent use of anonymous parties in transactions.
“You’re a dealer in San Francisco and you’re trying to sell a piece that happens to be in a gallery in New York, and the buyer is in Paris, but the guy in New York, for all kinds of reasons, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s the one selling the piece,” Mr. McCollum said. Because the federal government requires airlines to ensure that cargo comes only from known shippers — those who have filled out paperwork or been identified in other ways as being legitimate — such hidden parties in art deals will have a much more difficult time remaining hidden.
“It’s going to be a mess,” Mr. McCollum said.
Douglas Brittin, the air cargo manager for the Transportation Security Administration, said the likelihood of airline personnel needing to open art crates or other complex cargo would probably remain low even after August. (In all, 13,000 tons of cargo a day is transported by passenger airlines, according to the agency.)
But the new rules could lead to delayed shipments. And even the faint possibility of an airline inspector with a screwdriver uncrating a Calder sculpture or an early Renaissance tempera painting could be enough to cause collectors to think twice about loans or other shipments moving by commercial air.
“This is government and airline workers basically trying to figure out how to deal with the high-end art world,” Ms. Pontillo said. “It’s not something that either party wants to think about, but soon there’s going to be no choice.”