Handled With Care

From an African slave canoe to a Dale Chihuly sculpture, a local business transports priceless artifacts and great works of art.

Jane Marion - October 2011

Handled With Care

From an African slave canoe to a Dale Chihuly sculpture, a local business transports priceless artifacts and great works of art.

Jane Marion - October 2011

Along a busy industrial stretch behind BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, Scott Pittman wipes the sweat off his brow, brought on by a record-breaking Baltimore heat wave. Once inside the several storage vaults of Bonsai Fine Arts, Pittman reads the thermostat on the warehouse wall: "70 degrees with 50 percent humidity," he says, proudly pointing to the Holy Grail of art-storage climate-control.

Pittman handles billions of dollars worth of priceless art by the likes of glass artist Dale Chihuly, environmental artist Christo, and the French Enlightenment's Jean-Antoine Houdon. And he moves equally priceless objects—such as an early 20th-century Suffragette wagon and even Benjamin Franklin's printing press. But he rarely sweats it on the job.

"I always tell my staff, 'The most important thing you can do is make our clients feel comfortable,'" says Pittman. "If they are nervous, and they don't trust you, your job is going to be hell. If you are sure of what you're doing, and you have a backup plan, everything will work out. Everything you handle is the most valuable—you can't say, 'That's only worth $2,000 and that's worth $10 million'—you have to treat everything the same."

The Glen Burnie-based Bonsai is one of a highly specialized coterie of companies in the country to pack, crate, and transport works of art, antiques, objects, and one-of-a-kind artifacts. The company, which grosses about $2.5 million a year, serves nearly every major museum and institution along the eastern seaboard (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian museums, the Mint Museum of Art, the Maryland Historical Society, and the Maryland State Archives, to name a few), as well as leading galleries and private collectors throughout the United States. As Jeanne Benas, registrar for the National Museum of American History, will tell you, "Art handling has, in and of itself, become an art form."

In fact, there's both an art and science to moving the art safely from one location to the next, with painstaking planning and, for the sake of security, a shroud of secrecy. "We wear elfin hats and shoes while we work," jokes James Johnson, co-owner of Bonsai ARTransport, a sister company that handles the shipping side.

Only the most diehard culture vultures probably give much thought to how an object of art gets from here to there—be it a life-sized bronze statue or treasured painting. But even the most famous works of art have, at one point or another, been transported. To wit: in the early 1960s, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy charmed French Minister of Cultural Affairs Andre Malraux into loaning out the Louvre's "Mona Lisa." By December 1962, unbeknownst to the public, the painting was bolted to the floor of a French passenger ship and kept under secret surveillance by nine French guards and two Louvre officials en route to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

"We are like travel agents for art," says Pittman. "We visit every site before we make a crate. The object stays where it is, and the crate is made in Maryland. I design the crate and then hand it off to my staff to make it."

Pittman's staff is far from what you would find at a traditional moving company. Several of the employees are highly trained artists, many of whom have studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "When the container looks good, we know it's going to be handled properly instead of being thrown around," says Edward Ryan, assistant registrar of the National Museum of American History, who has worked with Bonsai since its founding in 2002. "We know we won't have to gasp when we take the lid off."

For the truly priceless pieces, the shipping (done in incognito trucks outfitted with air-ride suspension, climate-controlled cargo compartments, built-in lifts, and GPS tracking) is almost like something out of a James Bond movie. "There are different levels of shipping," says Pittman, "but at the highest level, it's usually timed so you go straight to delivery and drop-off—even if it's a delivery from the East Coast to California, you go through the night, and the courier has to be with the load the whole time."

Pittman began transporting sensitive items in 1984 while still a student at University of Maryland where he majored in fine arts and economics. With a friend's help, he got a $7-an-hour gig to work as a courier at the White House. After graduating, Pittman was anxious to work in his field, though his job on Pennsylvania Avenue helped position him perfectly for what was to come. "Working at the White House taught me to be formal and keep a comfortable distance with people," says Pittman. "It also taught me to be discreet—all very important skills for an art handler."

By 1986, Pittman was hired by the now defunct D.C.-based Artransport (where he met his Bonsai business partner, Lap Tran). There he became schooled in art-transport basics from scheduling to crate-making to protocol. Says Pittman, "It was all the foundation of what I still do today."

Pittman went on to work for some of the biggest art-handling companies in the country. By 2002, he and Tran decided to go into business together. "We started in Crofton in this little roll-up garage next to a carpet place," recalls Pittman. "We financed this through the housing boom by finishing basements, building decks, and doing construction stuff."

But by 2005, the duo decided to give up home construction and devote themselves full-time to art handling. Pittman's background as a fine artist made him perfectly suited to the job. "When I started actually thinking about art, it was always about making it and protecting it," says the 49-year-old Pittman. "I was 24 when I got into this business. Early on, I took it seriously."

Back in a workroom area, using a band saw, Chai Longenecker, a MICA graduate who majored in painting, meticulously measures and cuts strips of ethafoam. They'll be used to make modular trays with cavities that will comprise the interior of a Tyvek-lined crate. Longenecker studies Pittman's plan, which specifies the crate's exact dimensions.

Meanwhile, in another room, smelling of heat-treated sugar pine, several staffers construct the exterior of crates that take roughly a day for a single person to build, depending on size. "I have a format that shows every piece of wood and how big it needs to be to make the crate," says Pittman. "The person who is making the crate can just take it and cut the wood—within an 1/8 of an inch—to specification." All of this labor-intensive work can be costly. A new crate can cost between $650 and $4,500, and Bonsai charges between $180 (for a simple installation or delivery in Baltimore) and $100,000 (for jobs involving hundreds of crates, packing, and rigging) for its services.

They've faced some daunting tasks over the years. Pittman says an antique cotton shredder from the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, MI, was the heaviest thing he's ever moved. "They had damage from Katrina," says Pittman, "so they had to move all of their collections. The cotton shredder was built into the wall so it could be seen from three different perspectives in two different rooms. Originally, I thought it was three different large machines, but after we removed the walls, we realized it was one big beast—approximately 6,500 pounds—and the trick was getting it through the main doorway to the gallery. We made a reinforced pallet on site and used rigging techniques, stepping it up one side at a time until it was raised to the height of the pallet." Even then, the challenge was far from over. Using a wheeled steel lever and palette jacks, the crew moved the shredder to another nearby building while the museum made repairs. "We actually rolled it down the sidewalk," recalls Pittman.

Packing, crating, and shipping the only extant example of an African slave canoe in the United States that was bound for the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in 2006 presented its own obstacles. Pittman and his crew traveled to the Eastern Shore to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, where they got their first glimpse of the historical artifact that had been gingerly brought up piecemeal from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Recounts Pittman, "They said to us, 'Can you move this canoe without any of the pieces falling off?' And we said, 'We will do our very best.'"

Over the course of three days, Pittman and his staff constructed a crate with a four-inch foam padded tray. "We had to load it onto our truck all the way to Baltimore," explains Pittman. "The truck went 'boom, boom, boom' down cobblestone streets in Fells Point, and then, using a crane, we had to load the crate into a third-story window." To make matters more complicated, a TV crew and reporters filmed the entire exercise.

"You could have heard a pin drop," says Pittman. "When the lid of the crate opened, the conservator walked around one time and said, 'Perfect.' And there was this applause at the end. It was dramatic."

Though he loves working with art, seeing the hurdles that can come with acquiring it has made him a minimalist at the Bolton Hill home he shares with his wife, Joy, and their 13-year-old daughter, Isabella. "Though there have been pieces coming through that I'd love to own," says Pittman, "I am inspired by the art and take something from the pieces to make my own art.

"I also enjoy thinking about the challenges of crating something I've never done before—like the Statue of Liberty," he says, laughing.

And while he once dreamed of pursuing a career in architecture, Pittman is more than happy to let other's work stand on display. "It has been said of art handling that we are like those life-sized Japanese puppets," says Pittman. "There are a lot of people behind the puppets, but you're not supposed to see them."

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