The front page of ATG No 2539.

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The antipathy of most insurers to the transport of high-value items by sea has only become evident since the post-war introduction of air freight as the standard practice.

Personally, as a senior museum curator and active in the field of packing and transport of works of art, I have always advocated the many advantages of marine transport in reducing the environmental stresses to which even the best-packed items are inevitably exposed.

During the period 1977-89 I tested a number of different packing and shipping strategies using sea freight between the UK and South Africa.

The first, and largest, consignment was the section of the JB Robinson Collection being transferred from the South African National Gallery in Cape Town to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in autumn 1977. These works were cased by Stuttafords in Cape Town, before my arrival, using traditional materials and rough sawn timber. The cases were loaded onto RMS Windsor Castle and stowed in the mail room in which the environmental conditions could be monitored throughout the 15-day voyage to Southampton.

Since I was travelling with the cases as courier, I was able to persuade the South African Railways Board to accept them as passenger luggage and thereby avoid the ad valorem charge they tried to levy for lifting them from the dockside onto the deck!

I, as courier, checked the consignment twice daily in accordance with the guarantee given to the insurers.

Touring exhibitions

One of my responsibilities as European art adviser to the 1820 Foundation was the organisation and administration of two art exhibitions toured in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

These works were packed and cased to modern standards prior to shipping by sea in passenger cabins hired for the purpose and thus within the environmentally controlled zone of each ship. I did not courier these consignments but met the ships and supervised the loading and unloading at each port. The insurance valuations were sufficiently modest for the 1820 Foundation to agree to the consignments being couriered at sea.

The final consignment, in 1989, comprised two 18th century French paintings, 7 x 6ft (2.13 x 1.83m), to be shipped from the UK to Muizenberg outside Cape Town.

The initial quotations for air freight were horrendous and I was commissioned to organise their transport by sea. For this transit, on board the 54,000-ton Safmarine container ship, I designed the packing in two light cases carried inside a standard insulated fruit container. This I set on the hatch covers of the ship, immediately in front of the castle and surrounded it with containers to each side and above as insulation.

The narrow space between the doors of the fruit container and the castle was adequate to permit regular access to check the doors but narrow enough to limit the penetration of sunlight onto them.

The position I chose was pivotal and intended to minimise movement within the container were the ship to pitch or roll. I accompanied the container for the 15 days from Southampton to Cape Town and the captain, late in the voyage, revealed to me that this was the precise position Safmarine selected for breeding cattle.

The recording equipment within the container demonstrated – in accordance with my designs – that during the voyage the temperature within slowly matched the ambient temperature as recorded by the ship, but the packing system designed by me and the dunnage employed limited the change in the relative humidity within the envelopes enclosing the paintings to barely 2%.

These results were the subject of a pre-print prepared for the conference of the Conservation Committee of ICOM the following year.

The general conclusions to be drawn from my personal experience of shipping by sea freight are that the stresses to which works of art are exposed are significantly less than those experienced in air freight, and that substantial economies are readily achieved.

Peter Cannon-Brookes