Members at work

Art attack – a superyacht investigation

21 February 2020

Unwitting superyacht crew could be risking legal and financial hardships by mishandling priceless artefacts onboard for super-rich owners. Andrew Draper lifts the lid on a hidden floating world of fine art which could soon see crew charged with smuggling under far-reaching new EU rules

Crews working on superyachts are often left exposed and vulnerable to the consequences of not knowing how to handle and care for high-value art.

Stories abound of heavy-handed cleaning which results in accidents such as chipped precious crystal, popping champagne corks flying through the canvas of valuable paintings, and chemical cleaning agents stripping gilded masterpiece picture frames.

So, whose fault is it when this happens and whose responsibility is it for training to make sure it doesn't? These are difficult questions to answer when the artwork – which is sometimes worth more than the vessel itself – is shrouded in secrecy.

Should captains and crews be trained in art appreciation or do they generally regard it all as a bit of a nuisance? (The answer to the last question is usually 'yes'.)

There are several issues concerning the carriage of fine art in international waters. They range from factors which cause deterioration of materials, conservation and repair, legal contracts in build and refit, tax liability, customs seizure, shipping, security and training.

Pandora Mather-Lees of Pandora Art Services is a consultant advising on specialist art care and says there's a real lack of knowledge about how to manage fine art onboard.

'The typical scenario is where the owner wants to ship artwork onto a yacht,' she says. 'Then there's responsibility for the crew to be onboarding these specialist pieces which can include valuable design objects. The owner might have a shipping company to handle installation, but undoubtedly there are a lot of risks.

'The biggest risk is moving the art. There's a lot of accidental damage. When art is moved around it is vulnerable – it gets dropped or inadvertently ruined because people just don't know what it is.'

A Christo and Jean-Claude painting was unwrapped by the captain when it arrived on a vessel, not realising that the brown paper and string were an integral part of the art. No-one had told him until the owner stared horrified at her investment. Christo artworks are valued in the millions.

An Andy Warhol Brillo Pad sculpture was left in a wheelie bin on the deck because someone thought they were, well, Brillo pads, when in fact they are an important part of the pop artist's oeuvre – one such sculpture sold in 2010 for $3,050,500.

The value of this artwork was intrinsically linked to its condition, Similar sculptures in lesser condition have sold only for tens of thousands of dollars, showing how critical it is to care for the only appreciating asset on board a yacht.

Stewards are often told to clean artwork as part of their duties. But cleaning a valuable artwork incorrectly can be worse than not cleaning it at all. Moving it to dust and polish a table can lead to chips or cracks, and anyone who thinks throwing cushions around while they're cleaning – at the risk of knocking over an art piece – should think again. An innocuous looking lamp costing €90,000 was ruined by a crew member's flying cushion.

The dishwasher is another 'no no'. A damaged €100,000 crystal sculpture, typical of those sold by Artsio Gallery to yacht owners, can cost €20,000 for repair to a scratched surface by specialists.

Ms Mather-Lees says: 'Often, the more junior the crew, the more likely they are to make mistakes. They have no experience or training.'

A Picasso can be valued at $50m, a Fontana at $40m. Very little public data exists on how much valuable art is, literally, floating about, but Ms Mather-Lees estimates it at over $4bn.

'Let's say there were over 4,000 yachts over 40m in 2018. If each one had a few significant artefacts onboard, which could easily tot up to $1m per vessel with just two paintings, then you're talking about a figure that is going to make the insurance companies flinch. Some are floating art galleries.'

Passing the buck

So, whose responsibility is it – or should it be – to ensure awareness and training? 'It should be the responsibility of the yacht management company, captain and yard,' Ms Mather-Lees says. 'The yard should be ensuring all crew are trained in all aspects of compliance onboard, not just health and safety.
The first ever symposium on this, the Protection of Art at Sea Symposium, was held at the National Maritime Museum in London in May 2018.

It concluded:
• To reduce risk, superyachts should appoint an external art management expert to work with a dedicated member of senior crew, trained in aspects of art onboard
• Responsibility should be assigned for integrating art collections management into vessel standard operating procedures
• This includes records and paperwork pertaining to possessions, overseeing cleaning, record-keeping, conservation, preservation and logistics. The responsibility for art and design needs to start with design and build to ensure safe onboarding and management during sea trials and maiden voyage. Art handlers must be aware in good time of travel arrangements to advise the necessary parties and support the captain with supporting documentation and logistics planning
• Care needs to be taken during newbuilding, sea trials, refits, crew turnover, annual compliance checks, change of domicile or tax status of owner or owning structure, interior design changes or new objects arriving onboard

Ms Mather-Lees has developed a course to fill the gap. 'The course I teach allows the inclusion of art appreciation, so people know something about the art world, their owner as art collector and what they are handing daily.'

She estimates there are 202 billionaires in the world who are yacht owners and who call themselves art collectors. It's a substantial market of art at sea, most of which is shrouded in the deepest secrecy and non-disclosure agreements.

This is arguably necessary to protect the works, but then has the flipside that things more easily get lost, stolen or damaged.

Training in art appreciation for yacht crews may also equip people for an art-based career ashore should they ever want to move out of shipping.

Caught out by a crackdown

Not only do crews need to learn about art appreciation, they need to know the law too. EU Regulation 2019/880 on the introduction and the import of cultural goods is expected to come into force in the next two years. It will place restrictions on the passage of artwork cross border and is designed to prevent the smuggling of antiquities.

The regulation will apply to all cultural objects. 'I have absolutely no doubt that customs officers will use this in the next couple of years as a pretext to board a vessel,' says Ms Mather-Lees. If art owners and captains do not follow the regulation carefully, they may be regarded as smugglers and land in very hot water indeed.

What should crew members do when something does go wrong? The advice is that prevention is better than cure. However, should it happen, crew must check their insurance cover and call a specialist before touching anything. If there is a legal risk, they should call their lawyer – and their Union, if they are Nautilus members.

In addition to yacht management, yards and industry training companies, Ms Mather-Lees is aiming to reach yacht crews directly to help them train up – something some stewards and stewardesses choose to do and pay for themselves to improve their chances of getting work.

Yacht owners sometimes ask a crew member to buy a piece of art, and hand over a credit card. What should they do and how do they go about it? What not to do is also important – like getting drunk and announcing to a bar that the yacht you work on has a Picasso on board. Contracts often contain non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), the content of which by their nature little is known about.

Nautilus members who have encountered any of the issues described in this article can contact the Union for advice and support. If you are not yet a member, join now.