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Fetching the Paintings 

Thursday, Feb 27 2003
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Photo by Elliott Shaffner

HOW DO YOU GET 110 EXTREMELY VALUABLE artworks from Barcelona to Los Angeles without losing them, damaging them, or having them stolen from you at gunpoint in a sensational heist that will make headlines the world over and set young criminals dreaming?

The first step, in the case of the Lucian Freud show, was for MOCA to apply to the Federal Council for the Humanities in the Arts for an indemnity. Without it, the insurance costs of putting on the exhibition would have been prohibitive. Once the monthslong process was completed, Rob Hollister, MOCA's director of collections and registration, and Rosanna Hemerick, the museum's associate registrar, flew to Barcelona to itemize and check the condition of each work and bring them to L.A.

To minimize risk, the exhibition was divided into four, with Hollister and Hemerick taking a quarter each, and two other couriers, one from Tate Britain and the other from Barcelona's Fundació "la Caixa" museum, bringing the remainder. Because no carriers fly directly to L.A. from Barcelona, it was decided that the paintings should be driven to Paris and put on a direct flight.

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On January 13, a day after the Freud retrospective closed in Barcelona, Hemerick, accompanied by a representative from a fine-arts shipping company employed by MOCA, was at Fundació "la Caixa" at 5:30 a.m. to pick up her share of the artworks. With four museum employees in attendance, the crates were checked off and loaded onto a climate-controlled, medium-size, unmarked bobtail truck, and by 7 a.m., Hemerick, two drivers (MOCA wouldn't say whether they were armed) and the shipping-company rep were on the road as the sun was rising over the snowcapped Pyrenees. Sixteen hours later, shortly before midnight, they reached Paris and parked the truck overnight in a secure fine-arts facility with a 24-hour guard.

At 5:30 the next morning, Hemerick was back at the facility, where she was met by another fine-arts representative with more documentation, this one entrusted with shepherding the works through the labyrinth of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Once she had made sure that the paintings were on the plane, Hemerick got onboard herself and flew with them to Los Angeles, where the same process was enacted in reverse. Once again, she was met by a fine-arts representative at the airport, this one carrying more documents needed to clear customs. It took several hours from the moment the paintings were taken off the plane until the moment they were put on the truck. From there the work was driven straight to MOCA's loading dock on Grand Street, where the paintings were held for 24 hours so that they could acclimate slowly. Then they were brought into the museum. The remaining three shipments followed suit.

Surprisingly, perhaps, artworks as valuable as Freud's are often transported on regular commercial passenger jets rather than special cargo planes. The freight supervised by MOCA's two couriers went on 777s equipped with a lower deck for commercial freight as well as customer baggage. But the height of the door on the 777s is only 63 inches — too small for many of Freud's works. So the two other couriers, one from the Tate and the other from the Fundació, drove with the larger paintings from Barcelona to Amsterdam, where KLM flies what are known as "combies" — 747s in which the front half of the plane has been configured for passengers and the back half for plus-size cargo.

On the day I met Hollister and Hemerick, many of the paintings were still in their specially designed, foam-lined crates, some were already leaning against the walls waiting to be hung, and at least one was of such importance to its owner that a special courier would be arriving at MOCA to open it personally. But clearly nothing had gone wrong — the paintings were there, none was missing, and, so far, the condition of the artworks appeared to be exactly the same as it was when they were packed up in Barcelona.

In the middle of one of the galleries, Hemerick, who has alert brown eyes and short gray hair, was standing at a large table, examining one of the paintings under a registrar's lamp with a magnifying glass. She had already checked it in Spain; now she was studying it again in order to complete the "condition report" that must be filed on every artwork in the show.

Some of the paintings, being decades old, have cracks and other signs of damage that the British don't include on the condition reports on the grounds that they're now an established feature of the work. But the Spanish and American reports are more detailed. What's being looked for are any new signs of deterioration either to the painting or to the frame. On the table was a painting titled Baby on a Green Sofa 1961, a picture of Freud's daughter, Bella, that measures 22 inches by 24 inches and is owned by the Duchess of Devonshire. The condition, according to Hemerick, was good, partly because Freud hadn't applied as much paint as in some of his other works.

"Although, Rob," Hemerick said to Hollister, pointing to a small fissure an inch or so from the baby's tiny clenched fist, "what would you say that is? That line on her arm?"

"That's paint," Hollister answered.

"It looks like a crack to me," I put in.

"Oh, that!" Hollister exclaimed, bending down closer. "That's a crack."

"And it's not on the report," said Hemerick. "But it doesn't mean it's new, because, like I said, the Tate doesn't record anything old."

"But wouldn't the Spanish have done it?" I asked.

Hemerick smiled wryly. "Well, we do make mistakes. We do, like, miss something. It's a crack. I'll just write it down."

I asked her how a crack like that comes into being. Does it appear suddenly, following a long and invisible process of deterioration?

"It can happen," she replied. "A crack can have been caused many years ago, and only shows up suddenly. We can't speculate. We can't say that [this] is something that happened many years ago and is only now showing up, or [that it's] because of vibrations, temperature changes, or even that it's been there and hasn't been noticed before."

As it happened, that was the only condition change recorded in any of the works in the show. And when I looked at the painting again after the exhibition had opened, the crack wasn't even visible.

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