Interview with Ramon Casaïs, Director of Fine Art Transports Natural Le Coultre and warehousing expert.

How does Natural Le Coultre handle warehousing at its Geneva freeports?

Ramon Casaïs :  Warehousing is closely linked to clients’ needs. So the idea is that we offer a wide array of solutions. That could be a single crate stored in a shared vault, a comprehensive solution for a private vault, or tailor-made solutions resembling art-gallery exhibitions. If a work of art is particularly valuable, the client may request storage in a special case for additional safety. This kind of service is frequently offered.

We also act as advisors. Depending on the number of items requiring storage and the client’s upcoming plans for his or her collection, it may be worth renting private space. Our premises offer vaults of different sizes, enabling us to meet a variety of needs flexibly. The range of solutions is endless and always designed with the needs and preferences of clients in mind.

A small private space measuring 5 to 6 m2 costs CHF 400 monthly and will accommodate 30 to 40 standard-sized paintings if arranged in an orderly fashion. Much larger vaults are also available to store sizeable modern art sculptures, for example.

What are the ideal conditions for storing a work of art?

Ramon Casaïs :  The best storage conditions involve the use of isothermal crates kept in air-conditioned vaults. These precautions protect items from thermal shocks, which can occur if fine artwork is stored at ambient temperature. Storage also helps protect accidents. While mishandling is rare, it can still happen.

All our vaults are set to a temperature of 18-21°C year round, and relative humidity (i.e. the amount of water vapour present in the air expressed as a percentage of the amount needed for saturation at the same temperature) is set to around 55%. All of Natural Le Coultre’s strong-rooms are fully secured and all traffic is monitored using a network of video cameras. Innovative technology is regularly trialled and, if successful, installed. Even the artwork owners cannot enter unaccompanied; a member of our staff must always be present – even in private vaults.

Lastly, we work hard to keep our vaults clean at all times, and to maintain and regularly replace air-conditioning installations. Only the best materials are used, for example treated wood and pH-neutral wrapping paper. Most importantly, our trusted staff are unfailingly careful when handling valuables and receive regular training in the latest technology.

What does safeguarding mean for Natural Le Coultre?

Ramon Casaïs :  The human factor is paramount to fine art storage, even though the new materials and technology we discussed earlier also play a part. Handling is everything. Care must be taken when a work of art is delivered and handled initially. The right decision then needs to be made in regard to packing material. All the necessary measures must be taken in keeping with the estimated storage duration.

Fine art is part of our common heritage, which is another reason to treat it with the utmost care. In doing so, expertise and experience are just as important as using the latest technology and coordinating human interaction with the work of art.

How are you organised? How are items arranged for storage?

Ramon Casaïs : Approximately ten people work here at the Geneva freeport in connection with Natural Le Coultre’s operations.

When an item is deposited and has been carefully unpacked on our premises, the first stage is conducting a visual report. The item is subjected to detailed analysis from every possible angle. Customs rules require us to record 30 framework features including owner, sender, artist, year of production, dimensions, net weight (excluding crate), gross weight, reception date and so forth. We then have our own ‘in house’ characteristics which we note when a work of art is stored for longer term, not merely passing through.

Next, once the initial inspection has taken place, we repackage the work of art, place it in a crate, affix a bar code and place the object either in a private or a shared vault, depending on the client’s wishes. Our advanced computer program conducts detailed inventories and maps warehousing space in real time. We must be able to locate all items at all times. Too many comings and goings increase risks, which is why we require owners to notify us at least 24 hours in advance if they want to view their artwork.

What has changed in the warehousing business over the past 20 years?

Ramon Casaïs : Many things have changed, and there have also been steady improvements.

Insulation and packing materials have become much better. The manufacturers we partner with have invested heavily in R&D and we select only their best products. For example, we use only pH-neutral, acid-free paper and treated packing wood. Our crates are also fitted with increasingly sophisticated materials that prevent thermal shocks. In addition, air-conditioned lorries have become the benchmark, at least for the works of art arriving at and leaving our warehouses.

We’ve also expanded and enhanced security considerably. Aside from the cameras everywhere, keypads and biometric sensors control access to all our buildings for anyone wanting to enter or leave. All rooms are equipped with cameras – even packing and unpacking zones. We keep abreast of the latest alarm and firewall systems technology and make upgrades where necessary. We also take great care to keep the temperature constant and relative humidity around 55%.

Moreover, because artists are producing ever larger works of art, the art collectors who own them are asking for increasingly large private viewing rooms. We have also kept up to date with developments in showrooms, first seen in freeports around 25 years ago. This especially involves lighting but also curating and the associated administrative services.

Lastly, the overall size of our premises has increased from 1,000 m2 to 16,000 m2. That kind of growth requires smart management, but I think we’ve more than made the grade.

Ramon Casais

Ramon Casaïs

Director of Fine Art Transports, (part of the Natural Le Coultre network) and expert in warehousing logistics.