Chenue: with the conveyors of masterpieces

Chenue: with the conveyors of masterpieces

IIt is still early that morning and a brigade of stage managers, curators and movers is working silently in the half-light of the vast rooms of the Louvre-Lens. Today we are uninstalling the exhibition “The Louvre of Pablo Picasso”, 470 works to be returned to their owners: the Picasso Museum, the Louvre, the Center Pompidou, the National Archives, numerous private collectors, in all 40 different lenders who expect, one suspects, to find their goods intact. Six smiling boys calmly busy themselves, disabling security mechanisms, picking up theRocking chair who must return to Pompidou and transport the impressive Back from baptism after Le Nain, which returns to the Picasso Museum. The day before, they conveyed to the Louvre a funerary stele of 600 kg. Later, they will pack fragile postcards that belonged to Pablo Picasso. All are wearing a polo shirt with the “Chenue” logo, named after the oldest art transport company in France. It was Chenue who, in 1967, transported from Egypt the most beautiful pieces of the tomb of Tutankhamun for the exhibition at the Petit Palais, Chenue again who, in 1988, brought through the narrow rue de Lille a gigantic sculpture of Roy Lichtenstein in the hall of the Caisse des dépôts. It was its transporters who, in 1994, installed the imposing Inch de César – 12 meters, 18 tons – on the forecourt of La Défense, and who, in 2008, transported to Beijing one of the copies of the Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Rodin to whom the company already presented, during the artist’s lifetime, invoices for the transport of his works…

Treasures. In 1967, Chenue transported pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun from Egypt for the exhibition organized that year at the Petit Palais in Paris. “Tutankhamun and his time” will receive up to 12,000 visitors per day, a record.

Shockproof. Thin as a wire, pierced ears and arms covered with tattoos, Damien de Sousa, the very young team leader, carefully distributes the shock-absorbing foam around The Woman in the Hat. Damien is what is called a “layetier-packer”, a funny job that consists of wrapping, protecting and transporting works of art exclusively. Now, for a layetier to handle canvases, sculptures, often priceless drawings without trembling, it is said that it is better that he is unaware of their artistic and heritage value, that he has, in short, no knowledge of art history. But Damien, he observes attentively this woman in hat who, already lying in her crate, seems to be staring at him with her indescribable round eyes. “I’ve been doing this job since I was 15.said Damien, important works, I can tell you that I have seen them, and that I benefit from them. » Soon, an unmarked truck will start from Lens to reach the Center Pompidou, heavy with its precious load. The Chenue fleet has twenty-five vehicles, all anonymised, air-conditioned and mounted on hydropneumatic suspensions, because the worst enemy of works of art is road vibrations. Some of these trucks sometimes criss-cross France empty, decoys supposed to deceive thieves when, in other vehicles, a conveyance of particularly precious objects takes place. “The key to this job is discretion,” assures Julien Da Costa Noble, general manager of Chenue, who remembers with a laugh the removal of the reserves from the Musée de l’Orangerie in 2003. “It was worth hundreds of millions of euros, we told the museum management “above all, no police, we do this in two trucks, neither seen nor known”. Except that they put helicopters and the GIGN on our backs, and we crossed Paris like that, with fanfare. It was the best way to draw attention to us…”

Expertise. Manipulation of a self-portrait by Pablo Picasso (1906), which will be transported from the Louvre-Lens to the Picasso Museum in Paris.

Age-old know-how. He insists that we do not reveal the precise location of the warehouses in which we meet him, 34,000 square meters of storage space located in the inner suburbs of Paris. When the Horus Finance group bought the family business and its secular know-how in 1994, the intuition of the new owners was twofold. 1/ the movement of works of art, instruments of an increasingly active cultural soft power, will intensify. 2/ public collections being inalienable, and therefore exponential, and the reserves of our museums being generally poorly designed and unreliable, storage needs will be more and more pressing. Horus therefore invests massively in secure spaces: Chenue had 4,000 square meters of storage in 1994, it now has nearly 100,000. It is impossible, in the warehouses we visit, to guess what is hidden behind the doors of the boxes, all alike, lined up along the corridors. “There may be paintings or worthless furniture in one box, and in the next box masterful works.explains Da Costa Noble. In fact, we only manage 30% of these reserves, the rest is simple storage. We content ourselves with offering optimal safety, temperature and hydrometric conditions, without necessarily knowing what our customers deposit with us. » However, 70% of Chenue’s reserves are made up of public collections, which makes all of its warehouses one of the largest – invisible – museums in France…

Packed up. Handling the head and bust of the pharaoh, pieces from the legendary 1967 exhibition at the Petit Palais, in Paris.

Tenders. Here were also stored for a time the paintings of Notre-Dame de Paris, which 35 guys from Chenue went to extract in a few hours, the day after the fire, from the debris of the cathedral. It is also Chenue who has been in charge for eighteen months of the interminable transfer of reserves from the Louvre to Liévin, Chenue again who has just conveyed through Europe the Botticelli which were exhibited at the Jacquemart-André museum and which he had to be returned to the 25 lending countries. The company carries out an average of 100 movements of works per day, responding, like its competitors, to requests from private collectors but also to public calls for tenders that museums are required to launch when transport is envisaged. Several companies share the French market, including Bovis, Chenue’s main competitor, but also LP Arts, also bought by Horus Finance. In the world of museums and galleries, it is rumored that since Chenue has grown and singularly prospered – passing, according to its management, from 5 million euros in turnover in 1994 to 45 million today – the Rolls of carriers, overwhelmed, is no longer quite up to its task. The Horus Finance group owns or has taken stakes, from Brazil to Germany, in a dozen transport companies, gradually transforming itself into a small empire for the transport of works of art: the spirit of the old Chenue family business would therefore have disappeared a little… “They are criticized, but the truth is that it all depends on the teams you come across, tempers a museum manager. At Chenue, when you work with the right people, you still benefit from incredible know-how. »

Goddess. In 1939, the start of the Second World War threatened to jeopardize the works of the Louvre Museum, which had to be sheltered. The Chenue company takes care of evacuating the Venus de Milo using wooden frames.

On the job. It takes four years to become, most of the time by obtaining a CAP, a confirmed layetier packer. But some, like Ali Bouakar, the impressive mirror cabinet that moves around the rooms of the Louvre-Lens with the agility of a cat this morning, learn on the job, in contact with their colleagues. Ali had just moved, but at Chenue, he learned as a companion by watching others, copying their precise and assured gestures, their calm in all circumstances. When a problem arises, the solutions are always to be sought, it seems, in the simplest accessories. Thus, when it was necessary to move in 2018 the huge painting The painter’s studioby Gustave Courbet, the guys from Chenue placed cushions on the floor of the Musée d’Orsay, simple pillows on which they slid the 6 by 4 meter canvas without any problems…

That day, in the nearly empty showroom, Ali, after packing The Girl with the Hoop, who must return to Pompidou, peacefully detaches the postcards that once inspired Pablo Picasso. Layetiers like him, there are probably less than 200 left in France. So, to transmit its know-how, the management of Chenue has just opened a school specifically dedicated to the transport of works of art. Six apprentices already registered last January.

Succession Picasso/ADAGP/Xavier POPY/REA FOR “LE POINT” (x2) – Chenue SA (x2) – Granger NYC/Rue des Archives

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