The logistical challenges of moving a priceless work of art

by Barbara Strongin

Loaning the Pieta for the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair vs. today

The logistical issues of transporting art in general are challenging enough, but when you consider moving a priceless, fragile marble sculpture that was created in 1499 over 4500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the challenges escalate exponentially.

Using the expertise of Dennis Dwyer and Dominick Conetta of Dun-Rite Specialized, LLC of New York City, and their knowledge of transporting large, high-value art, I was able to compare and contrast how the move of the Pieta in 1964 would differ from handling the same move in 2016.

Landing of the Pieta at the Hudson River pier, New York.
Landing of the Pieta at the Hudson River pier, New York. © Official Guide Book Vatican Pavilion – 1964/ 1965 New York World’s Fair.

In 1964, the sculpture was prepared for its transatlantic journey by placing it in a wooden crate, which was then placed in a watertight steel box. The cost of this is unknown. If this was handled by Dun-Rite today, both crates would be constructed of steel with dense foam covering the interior as to match the contours of the sculpture. Along with additional moisture barriers, the cost for crating today would be US$20,000. Of course, the Pieta would need to be de-installed from the Vatican before any of the above could take place. In order to avoid impacting the normal Vatican activities, this extremely complex and laborious de-installation would have to take place after hours, incurring substantial overtime and labor costs.

Normal procedures for a complex move such as this would dictate that the same company and crew handle both the de-installation and the re-installation which requires flying over manpower, and then housing and feeding them — at a cost of more than US$30,000.

Now we come to the actual travel costs. Back in 1964, the crated Pieta was transported on a ship across the Atlantic requiring many safety measures (in case of sinking) and other procedures that were put in place to maintain the integrity of the piece for eight grueling days. This arduous trip was then followed by another water journey around Manhattan Island until its eventual re-installation in the World’s Fair grounds. The cost for this transportation back in 1964 is unknown.

This same trip in 2016 would be made via cargo plane accompanied by armed security guards. A tractor-trailer would take the precious crate directly to the NY Fair grounds as soon as it cleared customs. Of course, this would not be an inexpensive undertaking as Dun-Rite has estimated this mode of transportation to cost in excess of US$189,000. The costs of re-installing the sculpture from the tractor-trailer as well as using the special rigging equipment and crew from the de-installation adds another US$33,000 to the price tag.

It should also be pointed out that the Pieta was insured in 1964 for US$6 million, and valued at US$100 million. When one considers that a Pablo Picasso painting sold in 2015 for US$179 million, estimating the value of the Pieta in 2016 is difficult, if not impossible. However, for the sake of argument, if the Pieta were to be valued at US$1 billion, the normal cost of 1% of the value for insurance would mean a US$10 million insurance fee.

So, if we add the costs of transportation from the Vatican to the NY Fair grounds together, the approximate cost is roughly US$350,000. Add in the cost of insurance, and now you are looking at a total price tag of potentially US$10,350,000.

Let’s not forget, the piece has to then be returned to the Vatican…

Michelangelo's Pieta as exhibited in the Vatican Pavilion at 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair. © 1966 by Vatican Pavilion (New York World's Fair) Inc.
Michelangelo’s Pieta as exhibited in the Vatican Pavilion at 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair. © 1966 by Vatican Pavilion (New York World’s Fair) Inc.

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Pieta in New York: an incredible loan. by Camila Kieling