Chagall has arrived, but don't ask how

Vanessa Thorpe on the secrecy and danger that surround the transport of art
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The Independent Online
IN ONE of the most complicated fine art transport operations ever carried out, more than eight separate agencies have combined to bring a series of large Chagall murals to Britain for the first time.

The perilous six-day journey began two weeks ago at the murals' permanent home in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery. Each work was painstakingly packed in specially made Swedish crates and then moved by crane. From there, they travelled in convoy by road and sea, following a secret route and under the devoted guardianship of a team of Russian curators and restorers, until they reached the Royal Academy in London.

The intricate transport operation surrounding the murals is new proof of the way modern technology is defeating the multiple hazards of moving international works of art. Hurdles such as customs, climate change and security have all now become negotiable. The price tag though, remains high.

Government indemnity schemes such as those currently underwriting exhibitions in Great Britain and the United States have helped to make insurance less expensive, but the cost of hiring lorries and equipment can still be prohibitive for all but the biggest name galleries. The fee for the hire of the climate- controlled vehicles used on the murals' journey from Moscow, for example, was around pounds 12,300.

The unique Chagall paintings, which are watercolour and gouache on canvas, at one time decorated the walls of Moscow's Yiddish Theatre and show a colourful assortment of Jewish entertainers. Neglected for years as the Yiddish tradition dwindled under Communism, the recently restored works will be on display at the Royal Academy of Arts from Thursday. Each mural has been positioned around the main hall of the academy's Sackler Gallery in a close copy of the positioning originally intended by the artist.

The largest painting, 284x787cm, faces what would have been the entrance to the original Yiddish theatre and features, among many other characters, the image of Chagall himself being carried by the theatre manager towards the figure of the proprietor. On the right hangs a group of individual panels: one showing a fiddler, one a dancer and one a cantor.

The curtains that Chagall designed to hang around the stage have long since disintegrated, but bore the image of a goat's head, the artist's own shorthand symbol for Judaism. An accompanying ceiling painting has also been lost, but the Royal Academy's Sue Compton believes it portrayed a loving couple rather like the pair of entwined, translucent dancers on the mural which now hangs at the back of the make-believe auditorium.

When the rolls of canvas arrived in London at the beginning of last week, they were slowly stretched out over wooden frames and then left overnight to settle on a table that took up most of the gallery.

"Unfortunately our chief restorer, the man who breathed life back into these canvasses, is now dead," sighed the Tretyakov's curator of 19th- century and early 20th-century art, Alla Loukanova, as she watched over the unpacking of her babies. "All the same, it is very good indeed for me to see them here."

The restored murals were first shown in the new wing of her gallery in Moscow seven years ago. "There were still people around in Moscow who remembered them," said Miss Loukanova, "although, of course, only in the second Jewish Theatre building - a larger one, which was in turn closed down in 1949 when the tradition was destroyed."

Visitors to the academy's Chagall exhibition this week should be mindful of the expense and effort which have gone into its staging, according to the former freelance curator Michael Tarantino, the man now in charge of organising exhibitions at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art.

"It is so difficult to stage an important foreign show these days," he said. "The hire fees are very high, unless you can work in collaboration with other institutions to reduce the cost of catalogues, and even then, when you add the transport to the total, it shoots up."

The newest technology does not come cheap, and Helen Wilson, exhibition coordinator for Wingate and Johnston, the Peckham-based company that brought in the Chagalls, argues that cutting edge equipment is vital because it reduces the risk of damage or theft. For her the worrying part about the murals' transportation was coping with Russian bureaucracy.

"It was hard to find out what the regulations were and what was going on," she said. "Although, to be fair, there is now a transportation company which is allied to the State Russian Museum and that allows you to have some confidence in the vehicles provided."

Ms Wilson refuses to discuss the route the convoy took and confirms that her staff are instructed not to talk about their precious cargo during the journey. "We keep things very low key, except in countries where a police escort is provided, such as Italy or Spain," she said.

"It is usually an indemnity condition that the vehicle is never left alone. So this time the driver slept in the cab."

To reduce the risk of theft, customs officials now rarely examine fine art and simply accept signed authorities from the museums. Any unnecessary opening of containers could result in theft and could destroy the controlled atmosphere. And it is damage, says James Emson of the Art Loss Register, which is the chief enemy.

"Insurance is high because of the dangers of breaking or knocking the work of art in transit," he said. "There was frightful damage, for example, nine years ago at Heathrow when fire ravaged a depot."

Theft still poses a problem. There are currently 355 stolen Picassos, 109 Andy Warhols and 121 Rembrandts unaccounted for somewhere in the world and, while it might seem unlikely that anyone would attempt to walk off with a crate full of Chagall murals, Mr Emson points out that, even when a work is too well known to be sold, a ransom can be demanded.

On two separate occasions in the past decade, masterpieces, including two Picassos and a Meijer de Haan, have been temporarily snatched as they languished in customs at JFK airport in New York.

"Security is only ever as good as the people you have," said Mr Emson. "That is always the weak link, and works of art are always vulnerable in transit."