Arts: Monet is sent packing

It's an awesome and delicate task, returning the 79 paintings by Monet in the Royal Academy to their homes across the globe. Like the elderly millionaires they are, each one is cosseted, monitored and chaperoned with deep discretion.
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For the British public - 813,000 of them, including 8,000 in a final, marathon all-night session - the Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy ended at 6pm last Sunday. Behind the Academy's locked doors, however, the gonging-out of the last member of the public (it seemed like an ancient ritual; in reality, in the best Victorian faux tradition, the ceremony is brand new for 1999) was a signal for the real work to begin. Even as a clutch of grandees celebrated with champagne in one room of the Academy, the main exhibition rooms turned into a sudden hive of industry.

Letting more than three-quarters of a million people in to look at the exhibition was easy, relative to the task that the Academy now faced. How to get all 79 paintings safely home again, to destinations all over the world? Answer: only with military planning on a scale that Nato might envy.

Emeline Max, the exhibition's organiser, has spent months in meetings with colleagues to decide exactly how the "take-down" should be implemented. (Meetings took place even as she was organising the arrival of the Kandinsky exhibition that opened last week. Then there are the Beuys and the Van Dyck exhibitions yet to come. The round does not stop.)

As the last members of the public are still being shooed off down the grand staircase, Max is busy affixing yellow Post-It notes to the labels of each of the 79 paintings in the exhibition. Every sticky indicates the time by which the painting must be ready - packed, spick and span in every respect - to leave for home or on to its next guest appearance.

These insignificant stickies, it must be said, are a serious business. Before The Independent is allowed into the now-locked gallery, it is necessary to swear vows of silence that would make a Trappist look chatty. Even so, there is a frisson whenever I am caught looking at one of the labels with too much interest. As one of the staff courteously explains: "You have to understand, we've never let anybody in here before. It's all a bit strange."

A cluster of art-handlers - some from the Academy, some from the international art-movers, Momart - don white gloves and start to remove the first paintings from the walls. There is an air of calm intentness. Dan Cowap, the Academy's chief art-handler, emphasises: "You don't go in a rush. And you've got to have a keen awareness of what's going on in your space."

Each painting is laid out on a muslin-covered table and examined for what seems like an eternity - half an hour is considered a quick once- over for a single painting - by a conservator and a courier.

These couriers do not wear motorcycle helmets, nor do they greet you with an outstretched pen. Senior representatives of the lending galleries, they have come to babysit their painting or paintings all the way home. (Royal Family rules apply: valuable paintings may not travel in a single consignment, so that it is possible to hear scraps of conversation where multimillion-pound cargoes are divvied up on the run. "You have this one and Charing Cross. I'll take the other three. Is that OK?" "That's fine." Thus are the treasures disposed of.

Most couriers are happy to chat, though eager that their names should stay out of print. They pride themselves on being the invisible ones. A woman described by colleagues as the "queen of couriers" affably declares: "Nobody knows who I am. Nobody knows what I look like. I want it to stay that way." Even on home territory, couriers are careful not to tell colleagues about their moves in advance. "It's basic security. Loose lips sink ships." Breaches of etiquette are sharply slapped down. In a piece of small talk, an art handler asks a courier how long she will be in London. The instant retort: "You know I can't tell you that."

Occasionally, a fault is noted - on a painting from a museum in Moscow, for example, a flake of paint is lifting. The experts, gazing through their magnifying goggles, are worried. The Russian visitor, it turns out, has a phial of exclusive sturgeon's glue - the caviare of the art-conservator's workshop - which she is keen should be used. "I always bring some, just in case." The conservator sets to work repairing the damage on the multimillion- pound canvas, with the intentness of a high-wire tightrope walker without a safety net.

Once the paintings are ready, they are loaded into the waiting, purpose- built crates - which must be as close to the table as possible. "If you're not carrying it, you can't drop it," is the art-handler's motto. "Nobody carries unprotected paintings around the gallery, however carefully. Never, ever."

The painting receives multiple layers of protection and insulation - and even a crate within a crate. The insulation is intended to make it possible for the temperature to remain almost steady for an entire journey. As one of the staff comments, with only slight exaggeration: "You could live in those crates, they're so comfortable."

The couriers are umbilically attached to the works of art for which they are responsible. Thus, one courier suddenly interrupts himself in mid- sentence to move into another room. His painting, by now safely crated up and decorated with a piece of tape that proclaims in red letters that it is FULL, is on the move. Where his painting goes - on a little roller- trolley - he must instantly follow.

Finally - many hours or even days later - the paintings are ready for departure. Some are transported in an internal lift. But, in the case of the Monet exhibition, the largest panels create headaches of their own. They barely fit down the stairs, let alone into a lift. An entire dummy crate had to be specially constructed for a test walk-through when the Monet exhibition was first planned two years ago, to check that it was worth asking for the loan of the largest panel. "If it had been another 3ft longer, maybe we couldn't have taken it," says Dan Cowap. Fourteen people are needed to carry the panel down the stairs and out of the building, like a funeral procession in jeans.

Finally, it is time for the casual farewell. A crate - from which all the "RA - Monet" labels have been removed, moments before - is hoisted into the truck. And off everybody goes, into the ordinary world, a world in which Monet can get stuck in the traffic before speeding off to the airport.

For the last moment until the plane is airborne, the minders seek to remain in control. The freight is watched into the belly of the plane itself - at which point the representative from Momart informs the courier, who may be in the departure lounge or on the plane. There are occasional hiccups - for example, if the pilot decides at the last moment that some freight must be jettisoned, because severe headwinds make it necessary to take extra fuel. Frantic negotiations ensue to ensure that this is never the freight that ends up on the Tarmac. More hiccups occur when a courier forgets to bring his or her passport. With Monet, however, all has gone "very smoothly".

Crucially, too, the technology is simple. Greater complications ensue with exhibitions such as Sensation, which is awaiting transfer (after a run in Berlin) from London to New York. The formaldehyde in Damien Hirst's Shark alone requires six Momart staff to travel with the shark to New York, where they will don big white suits, rubber gauntlets and filtration masks, and go to work in a special "negative pressure tent" to re-create the installation.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that Momart's managing director, Scott Blyth, describes something like a Monet exhibition as "almost routine", by comparison with moving sharks.