How to Get a Priceless Painting Across an Ocean? In Louis Vuitton, Of Course

A charming article which appeared in written by the talented writer Chloe Schama emphasises the relationship between art and lifestyle…

The call came in the middle of the night. At some fateful moment in its transit from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Woman had been damaged. Perhaps it was dropped. Perhaps the force of the fall caused one of the bolts holding the precious work in place to become dislodged, slashing the canvas in the process. Whatever the cause of the injury, it was not a call that Tatyana V. Potapova, the Pushkin’s curator, was happy to receive.

Stories of priceless works becoming a little less priceless are more common than one might think (and not just because of Banksy-style antics). Roughly 60 percent of all insurance claims related to works of art are the result of transport-sustained damage, according to the Financial Times. And the damaged Rembrandt is hardly the only Old (or modern) Master to suffer an ignominious turn. In 2008, a 500-year-old painting by 16th-century artist Domenico Beccafumi slipped from its frame as it was being removed from an exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

So, it makes a certain kind of sense that the Rijksmuseum would team up with Louis Vuitton to develop a mode of supremely secure transport for Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid on its passage to the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo, where it will be exhibited as part of “Making the Difference: Vermeer and Dutch Art,” up now through February 3, 2019. (The work has only left the country a handful of times. Its last journey out of the country was in 2009, when it traveled from Amsterdam to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; before that, it hadn’t traveled to the U.S. since the 1939 World’s Fair.)

The Milkmaid will travel in a bespoke Louis Vuitton trunk. Photo credit: Patrick Galabert

“Luggage,” writes Patrick-Louis Vuitton in the sumptuous history Legendary Trunks, “was first and foremost utilitarian.” Yet, this practically minded approach often took a fanciful turn. In 1905, the house designed a “trunk bed” for Italian-French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a trunk that unfolded in a kind of camp bed—“unrivaled for comfort and wear,” according to the original advertising.

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s trunk bed. Image: Tous Droits.

In the early 20th century, as ballooning and flying, ahem, took off as the gentlemanly pastimes of Jules Verne wannabes, Louis Vuitton created an unsinkable “aero trunk” that, in its initial design, attached to the gondola of a balloon. (Original illustrations showed it doubling as a boat, should a fantastical flight take a more earthbound detour.) And, of course, the firm has designed for artists and collectors, including the Paris art dealer René Gimpel, a cousin of George Vuitton, who transported Monets and Renoirs in the trunk’s stacked trays. But no matter the intricacy and complexity of the construction, the ultimate imperative—safe and secure passage—remained the same.

“The transportation of art—including logistics, packing, and transportation of the work—is a very delicate process,” says Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s general director. But, he notes, “There is always a risk in transporting art. As everything in life, nobody can completely eliminate risks.” To do so would be a fate perhaps more tragic than a damaged work: shutting it up where no one could ever see it.

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By Chloe Schama

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