In the 14th century, Sultan Feroze Shah Tughlaq was so inspired by Emperor Ashoka’s edict-inscribed pillars at Topra and Meerut that he undertook the daunting task of shifting them to Delhi. Historian DR Bhandarkar drew on an account by Tughlaq’s chronicler Shams-i-Siraj, who wrote Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi, to provide a vivid description of the transportation process in his 1925 book Asoka:

“Quantities of the silk cotton were placed round the column, and when the earth at its base was removed, it fell gently over on the bed prepared for it … [It] was then encased from top to bottom in reeds and raw skins, so that no damage might accrue to it. A carriage with forty-two wheels was constructed and ropes were attached to each wheel. Thousands of men hauled at every rope, and after great labour and difficulty the pillar was raised on to the carriage. A strong rope was fastened to each wheel, and 200 men…pulled at each of these ropes…the carriage was removed, and was brought to the banks of the Jumna…A number of large boats had been collected…The column was very ingeniously transferred to these boats, and was then conducted to Firozabad, where it was landed and conveyed into the Kushk with infinite labour and skill.”  

Forty-two-wheeled carriages may be anachronistic, but relocating heritage and objects of cultural value is still a fastidious job, requiring great care, punctiliousness and an enthusiasm for art. Today, transferring a work of fine art can involve detailed preparatory reports, unique packing materials like acid-free paper and foam-lined wooden crates, climate-controlled storage and trucking facilities, specialised labour with years of experience, approvals from a host of governmental organisations and clearances from Customs.

One of the few companies that undertakes this painstaking work in India is Mithals International Movers. Its director Arjun Mithal talked about how the company was set up to relocate household goods: “We transitioned into fine art handling in the early 2000s when the art market exploded and the demands for exhibition grew.” Mithals is one of two Indian companies that’s a member of ICEFAT (International Convention of Exhibition and Fine Art Transportation), an art logistics organisation that represents firms worldwide.

Most recently responsible for the Bonjour India exhibition at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and a showing of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculptures at the Venice Biennale 2022, Mithals has worked with both public institutions like the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and private ones, including galleries and studios.

What makes the transportation of artworks different from other kinds of cargo? Mithal answered, “The material used is part of what makes the difference. For example, the crates we use for fine art are different from the average boxes used for commercial or domestic cargo. They are of 12 mm thickness with 2-inch foam lining, made to specification.”

Apart from special crates, packing material includes certified fumigated wooden pallets, non-adhesive papers – dry wax, butter, acid-free – bubble wrap, protective tapes, clean plastics, corrugation sheets, waterproof wrapping and similar paraphernalia listed by interviewees from all companies.

Workers move a sculpture at the India Art Fair. Credit: Kamayani Sharma.

However, there’s more to the business of handling art than its physical aspects. Annurag Sharma, managing director of United Art Logistics, which he founded in 2004, is quick to point out, “It’s not just about infrastructure, there has to be a passion for art. Otherwise you might end up with oil paintings in bubble wrap.” UAL has worked with galleries, international fairs, auction houses as well as the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. Most recently, it worked on an exhibition featuring Indian artists at a major Italian art fair Artissima.

Sharma described through the multi-step process of relocating an artwork from point A to point B: “We begin with surveying [or inspecting], which culminates in preparing the Condition Report for the individual work. Then we pack it using customised materials suited to its dimensions, medium and state…it’s not just a set formula of bubble wrap, corrugated sheet and crate. We facilitate its passage through Customs and ensure the best possible transport by air or sea. Once the work arrives at its destination, we prepare another condition report, transport the work to the delivery address, unpack and install it there and dispatch the final report to the sender.”

This workflow is echoed by other companies as well, suggesting that it is the standard operating procedure.

The Condition Report is also emphasised by Writer Relocations, which has been in the fine arts logistics business for six decades, working with clients like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the Tata Trust and the Pune Biennale. COO and CRO Simon Mason explained, “The Condition Report is an assessment of the material and artist details and other things based on which a government certification is provided on the valuation of the painting, including insurance and sale.”

According to Racine Berkow, founder of a fine arts logistics company and creator of a course titled “International Fine Arts Logistics” at New York University, the organised network of fine art movers and handlers developed in the latter half of the 20th century, mostly in response to the rise of the blockbuster exhibition and the commercial art fair. In the early decades of post-Independence India, art was sent and received mainly by the government through institutions like the National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi.

Though there is little information about Indian fine arts supply chains during this era, it is reasonable to suppose that government institutions had their own departments dedicated to managing the transportation and installation of artworks. The few private dealers and galleries of the time relied on regular courier companies – Uday Jain of Delhi’s Dhoomimal Gallery says that Blacker & Company (established in 1888) “has been helping us with shipments since the late 1980s”.

Over the past 20 years, the Indian art market has increased in value and size, accompanied by a proliferation of private museums, galleries, auction houses and art institutions within the country and regular exhibition of artworks around the world. Thus, the need for specialised art logistics has come into being.

Packing art is not like packing any other cargo. It requires paraphernalia like waterproof wrapping, special crates, non-adhesive papers, bubble wrap, protective tapes, corrugation sheets. Credit: Mithals International Movers.

At the level of labour, art handling and manual work are the two broad types of specialised skills that constitute fine art logistics. These comprise: carpentry, high-value goods packing, loading and unloading and trucking and operating forklifts. By way of example, Mithal described his experience of working with the National Museum some years ago: “Some practices are to use white gloves [to prevent marks], trolleys [for moving three-dimensional objects], stackers [to move paintings and flat works] and 2-inch foam [to prevent touching between objects].”

At UAL, Harish Chander is a seasoned art handler with 10 years’ experience, who began his career as a courier. He has worked with a range of materials and types of art works. About a recent project, he said, “There was a glass painting on which we couldn’t use masking tape, so we had to improvise. Usually, if there’s a tricky consignment, I reach out to my seniors in the field, for guidance.”

Over the course of his career, he has developed relationships with artists. One artist, for example, resized the components of her sculptural piece to be mounted at Artissima because the UAL team advised her that installing it within the expected spatial limits of the site would be impossible.

Once packed, the next stage at which fine art becomes vulnerable is the actual movement by land, air or sea. Mithal mentions that the two main points of concern for logistics companies are palletisation/depalletisation and tarmac supervision. Palletisation is the process whereby the artworks are arranged on the surface according to the desired orientation in order to create the load meant to be transported. Tarmac supervision involves making sure that the consignment is appropriately handled and loaded by the freight attendant at the port.

Inexpert handling might require intervention by these companies – Sharma recalls having to get a painting’s glazing redone at the airport because it was damaged during transit.

The Condition Report is the all-important start of the process of transporting art. Credit: Mithals International Movers.

Mithal elaborated on the Customs regulations: “The policies for fine art are broadly similar to those governing commercial cargo – for example, GST, export and import duty etcetera apply.” For short-term entry into India, artworks benefit from the application of the ATA Carnet or “Passport for Goods”, an International Uniform Customs document issued in 79 countries.

Mason gave a fuller picture: “It is a document that is mandatory for all fine art exhibitions held in India and other countries which permits the movement of art without attracting customs duty for the purpose of exhibition only and not for sale. It helps duty-free temporary admission of goods without the need to raise customs bonds, payment of duty and fulfilment of other customs formalities.”

While India does not have the sort of freeports (a setting that shot to fame in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet) in which expensive art – on which buyers wish to avoid tax – is stored, it does have a number of bonded warehouses (under Customs control) and a sole Free Trade Warehousing Zone called Arshiya Limited. With operations at Panvel and Khurja, goods can remain at Arshiya Limited for indefinite time, depending on the permission issued to the client. The FTWZ’s website defines it as “a deemed foreign territory within the geography of India for the purpose of tariff and trade”.

Though one of the logistics company managers suggested that they liaise with Arshiya for their storage needs, Ankit Jain, a sales manager there, said, “To be honest, it’s rare to get fine art as cargo for storage…maybe once a year. The works can stay here for the entire length of authorised permission. In case the art is to be exhibited, it can be taken out for up to 90 days. For this temporary removal, you’d need to submit a bill of entry to Customs [Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs]and, if you require an extension, take additional permission. Of course, if you sell the artwork in India, you have to pay duty.”

While contemporary art enjoys relatively straightforward channels of entry into and exit from India, this is not the case with antiquities or artefacts that are more than 100 years old (or 75 years for manuscripts and documents). They fall within the scope of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972 administered by the Archaeological Survey of India. Private individuals and institutions are prohibited from exporting such artefacts.

Even when logistics companies work with government institutions to send these objects out of the country, extra steps are involved. Mithal clarified, “Though we might be officially partnered with a government body, special permission from the ASI would be needed. The institution organises that on its own and we are furnished with a No-Objection Certificate, which we then present at the port of exit.”

Annurag Sharma, managing director of United Art Logistics, points out that transporting art is not just about infrastructure, it requires a passion for art. Credit: United Art Logistics.

This brings us to the question of the process by which these fine arts logistics firms are appointed to work with the government of India. As the discussion about antiques shows, since Independence, it’s through the state apparatus that some of the most historically significant Indian art has been made available to viewers. Mithal responded, “We work with the National Museum, for example, and their staff obviously has an idea of how to do it but they require us to implement it. Government institutions could retain a vendor for a number of years or work on a per-project basis.”

As with all services provided to the government, fine art handling and transportation is also contracted through a tender system. Mithal says the government invites tender bids is in two phases: “First there’s the technical bid, and then from this narrowed-down pool of bidders who satisfy the criteria, there’s a financial bid.”

At the UAL office in Delhi’s Janakpuri neighbourhood, large, rectangular crates lean against the walls, encasing paintings. Though UAL’s main warehouse is in Dwarka, the Janakpuri office hosts a small, compact version of the facility in the form of a storage unit installed along one wall and screened off by a sliding glass door secured using a digital lock. There are more crates and boxes stacked inside, in partitioned grey cells separated by moisture-controlled carpeting sheets to maintain optimal conditions for the art in Delhi’s extremities.

Sharma considers UAL’s long engagement with fine art to be cutting-edge: “We were the first to use tilt sensors [that indicate whether a container has been moved off centre]. We plan to open a factory for international-standard wooden packing solutions, including renting out crates.”

A significant part of mounting events like the India Art Fair is – the transportation of art from around the country and world to the wall or floor of the booth. The official art handling partner of IAF 2022 was the Star Worldwide Group, which has been working with them since 2012. Star Worldwide is the other Indian company that is a member of the ICEFAT. Artworks at fairs vary in size, weight and construction ranging from delicate metalwork to stone solidity.

“Cushioning,” said JP Khanduri, one of Star’s operations managers, “is the most important aspect of art handling. You have to fill up all the free space to minimise the scope for breakage, damage and collision.”

Speaking specifically about the India Art Fair, Rajesh Gulati, vice president of Star Worldwide, said, “We get a list of participating galleries and institutions and appoint a dedicated coordinator to handle each one through the entire process. Our team contacts them to understand their exact requirements based on the number of art works they plan to showcase. We have a pan-India presence with offices in all metros. The personnel get in touch with these galleries and start scheduling the tentative packing or crating dates. Similarly, for international galleries, we contact them through our [ICEFAT] agent networks and directly as well. Some of the items to consider include the inward freight, return freight and special equipment expenses.”

While all companies use their networks of vetted agents in cities around the world and India to carry out operations, “being an ICEFAT member means that they comply with similar standards of quality”, according to Mithal. On its website, the organisation states that it recommends 13 categories of standardisation “of physical, operational, administrative and managerial practices”, and applicants to membership have to have at least five, financially successful years of experience.

It is not entirely clear how applicants evaluated by the organisation or how, since favourable reviews from other members are taken into consideration, how it guards against the possibility of mala fide reviews due to local competitiveness. (ICEFAT declined to respond to an emailed questionnaire.)

With the level of “infinite labour and skill” required, all the companies say that they prefer retaining personnel with many years of experience. In the initial years of the industry, foreign experts were brought in to train workers, eventually moving into virtual trainings that last a couple of months. Does the manual labour that goes into making art accessible also allow for a relationship with the art to develop over time, through the act of looking after it?

Khanduri of Star Worldwide does not think appreciating art is necessary for tending to it. “Understanding art is another matter,” he said. “I am just providing services. I understand how to care for, handle and take precautions against the damage of artworks but not the meaning of the works themselves.”

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.