The Collector’s Guide to Packing, Storing and Transporting Artwork

Andreea Draguleasa
September 19, 2023
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Got a painting that means the world to you? Or maybe a collection that is growing bigger by the day? You can’t just shove them in a closet and hope for the best. Storing artwork the wrong way is a ticket to heartbreak.

So, how do you pack artwork for storage and how do you transport it safely, making sure they get to live on without a scratch or smudge? Hang tight! We have gathered some nifty advice to keep those colors popping and frames firm.

Why Proper Art Storage Matters

In 2012, a nightmare unfolded in Brooklyn. Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services, designed like a fortress for art, faced its worst enemy: Hurricane Sandy. Despite top-notch security measures, nature took the upper hand. Valuable pieces met a watery end, leaving collectors heartbroken.

Tina Ehrlich, Director of Operations for Liz Lidgett Gallery and Design weighs in on the broader importance of art care.

“Artwork is an asset. Like any asset — your home, your car — you want to take care of it. Over time, if well-preserved, its value can increase. On the contrary, negligence can cost you not just in repairs but in the artwork’s potential value,” she said, noting that it’s impossible to recreate an original piece of art.

From Christie’s misfortune and Ehrlich’s experiences, we understand not just the importance of TLC for art, but specifically how to store paintings the right way. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and get into the how-to of packing, moving and storing artwork so its home is just right. Because if art speaks to the soul, it deserves the best care we can give it.

How To Pack Artwork for Storage

Do you have a stunning piece of art and are wondering how to give it the five-star treatment it deserves? Let’s take it one step at a time.

Start by Understanding the Curing Process

Say you got a fresh artwork in your hands. Awesome! But let’s pump the brakes for a moment. Artworks, especially paintings, need a bit of downtime.

  • Oils: Okay, so oil paints take their sweet time to set. They might seem dry if you touch them in a few days or weeks, but they are like onions — they have layers. Realistically, waiting for about six months to a year before storing or framing them is your best bet.
  • Latex-based paints: These guys are a bit quicker on the draw. Usually, they are all set within a few days to four weeks. Though, keep in mind, things like crazy humidity can play a role in this.

Packing Artwork for Storage: The Do’s and Don’ts

It is essential to wait for those paintings to fully cure. Rushing it? That is a ticket to Smudge City right there. But once past that, here are some handy tips.

Good-to-go materials:

  • Tissue paper: The acid-free kind. It is gentle and keeps your painting safe from pesky dust and little scrapes.
  • Breathable sheets: Think natural fabrics that let your painting breathe, keeping the yucky mold at bay.
  • Foam: Great for a cushiony barrier, especially for those framed artworks you don’t want to get dinged up.

When storing artwork, selecting the right material is crucial.

“You want it to be fully covered, edge to edge and front to back,” Ehrlich said.

It’s like giving your artwork its own personal bodyguard, keeping away harmful things, with dust being enemy number one to your prized creation.

Not-so-great materials:

  • Plastic wrap: Avoid! Traps in moisture and we don’t want any mold parties.
  • Bubble wrap: It can leave its mark on the artwork, literally. If you must use it, keep it as an outer layer and put something between it and the painting.

Safeguarding Canvas Paintings

A crucial step that is part of learning how to pack artwork for storage is to slide a backing board behind a canvas. It offers solid protection, especially for those artsy pieces without frames. Another thing is canvases get a little slack sometimes. Those tiny wooden things on the corners? They are keys that tighten it up, making sure your canvas stays in shape.

Next up, the rolling debate. This one is tricky. Sure, rolling saves space, but it’s a bit risky, especially for old-timers or super-textured paintings. Cracks and flakes? No, thanks. If you really have to roll, make sure the painted side faces out and wrap it with something protective, like silk or acid-free paper.

How To Transport Your Artwork Safely

Artwork on the move can face some real challenges. You’ve got to ensure that each piece gets from Point A to Point B without a scratch, dent or any other misfortune.

Mind the Position

Stacking artwork might seem like a quick fix, but let’s heed Ehrlich’s advice.

“One of the biggest mistakes is the way people position their artwork,” she said. “Always place them front-to-front and back-to-back. If you have four canvases, you are going to sandwich two of them front to front together, and then the ones next to it also front-to-front together, and the two sets back-to-back.” This method protects the artwork’s face and keeps those sneaky hanging bits on the back from causing trouble.

Stay Vertical

How you orient artwork during transport matters. A lot.

“You want to store your artwork vertically, not flat horizontally. You don’t want any kind of weight to be on top of it,” she said.

And, while the orientation of artwork during transit can make or break its condition, tossing in some extra cardboard layers is a welcome plus. It gives your art that extra shield against bumps and knocks, as does any kind of securing you can do.

Pros vs. You: Who’s on the Move?

Handling things on your own can be rewarding, but when it comes to storing artwork and transporting precious art, sometimes calling in the cavalry (aka professionals) is the way to go.

“Professional art handlers have tools and knowledge that many might lack,” Ehrlich pointed out, strongly recommending hiring a pro for a bigger collection since there is more room for error. “If you have under five pieces, you can take the time to make sure it’s fully covered. But if you have a large collection, we suggest hiring a professional.”

Now, if you are set on a DIY approach, just be sure to arm yourself with the right info and tools. In the end, every step, from storage to transport, plays a part in keeping your artwork in top shape.

Where To Store Artwork

Learning how to pack artwork for storage is a skill in itself. It isn’t like shoving your old jeans into the back of a closet. And yes, while keeping art safe and sound might seem intimidating, Ehrlich and many experts out there have laid down some golden rules to guide you.

Climate Control All the Way

Let’s get one thing straight: not all storage units are created equal. For artwork, what’s on the inside — temperature and humidity — can make a world of difference, so always aim for climate-controlled storage.

“Extreme heat to artwork can make the materials melt and mold, while extreme cold can turn the materials very brittle,” said Ehrlich. “Condensation can get behind a piece of glass or acrylic, and then the piece behind it will get wet and ruined.”

How To Set Up Self-Storage Units for Artwork

Besides making sure your self-storage unit is climate-controlled, it also matters how you set it up. Ensure proper air circulation and consider shelving, pallets and wooden slats. When pondering how to store paintings, remember that a vertical position is your friend not only during transport but storage as well. And for the love of all things artsy, give each piece its personal space. No one likes a clingy neighbor, artwork included.

Expect the Unexpected

Floods, fires and the occasional ceiling leak can spell disaster for artwork. That is where disaster planning services, like those offered by DPR Art Rescue, stride in, capes fluttering. Having a tailored disaster plan isn’t just for museums; individual collectors can also benefit immensely. It’s about thinking two steps ahead and making sure that your art remains unscathed, come rain or high water.

To protect your pieces, keep them off of the floor of the storage area. Place them on top of boxes or another level surface so they are not touching the ground. In the event of a flood, your pieces will have a better chance of survival.

Keep Track

Natural disasters are not the only unexpected thing that can happen. Ehrlich shared a real-life story that drives home the importance of keeping a good inventory system.

“One time, we had a client with over 150 pieces of art. A manager, who was a very detail-oriented person, took care of everything — from buying to storing. Every piece was wrapped up and kept safely, and only this manager knew where everything was and which piece was which,” she said.

Unfortunately, when that manager unexpectedly passed away, it turned out nobody else had a clue where each art piece was or its details. “When the client wanted to move the artwork, we were lost. We had to unwrap every single piece to figure things out. Some even got damaged in the process. It was a mess,” Ehrlich said.

The lesson is it’s vital to have a system that everyone can access, not just one person. Even if they are the best at their job, you never know what can happen. And the easiest way you can achieve this is by writing the title of the piece and the artist on a piece of tape over the packaging.

Storing Artwork Made Easy

Art needs love, from packing to displaying. Remember the drying time oils demand and the wonders of acid-free paper. Ehrlich taught us to store artworks upright and value the face-to-face method. The right spot for your treasures? One with perfect climate control, away from harmful extremes. And who knew a storage unit could be a secret art showcase? Whether you’re keeping or flaunting, it’s clear: art deserves top-notch care. Let’s make sure it gets it!


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The SpareFoot Blog offers tips about self-storage, information about storage auctions, advice about home organization, news about SpareFoot and much more.
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