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Dealer John Howard: “There’s been no tail-off in FedEx’s service – they’re like the fifth emergency service for me right now.”

The good news is that on March 30 the Department of Transport wrote to road haulage and freight transport associations to confirm that it “considers it essential that the work of the logistics sector should continue to the greatest extent possible” adding that “government policy is clear that this applies to all supplies chains and not only those for food and medical supplies”. This means journeys for work by logistics staff are deemed ‘essential travel’.

Without physical fairs to service, several art market delivery firms have closed their doors for the lockdown’s duration (ATG No 2436). Yet there are still delivery services available – ones that adhere to government strictures while treating fragile objects with the care that buyers expect.

Mail Boxes Etc (MBE) operates a franchise of depots throughout the UK.

Under its ‘Auction Logistics’ brand, MBE partners with ATG parent Auction Technology Group to provide some 100 auction houses hosted on thesaleroom.com with bespoke collection, packing and global delivery of art and antiques.

“This unprecedented situation is evolving daily,” says Duncan Hypher, business development manager at MBE (UK)’s head office. “The solutions we put in place today may not be appropriate tomorrow.

“Strict safety protocols are in place and we scrupulously observe the law, but subject to this we would like to help auction houses and buyers through this.”

Individual MBE franchise stores are working with auction houses where operationally possible, Hypher says.

Take MBE Edinburgh’s support for Lyon & Turnbull’s online-only sales in April: a collection service provided on a bespoke ‘no-contact’ basis.

“If we can arrange a single, bulk collection following a sale, we can help ensure the minimum of auction house personnel is required onsite,” Hypher says. “We can also minimise the number of journeys to collect purchases, by collecting all items for shipment during a single visit.”

As ever, for the final part of the journey, objects are placed by MBE with familiar couriers such as Parcel Force, DHL and FedEx, which provide consignment tracking services. MBE’s established relationships with auction houses help facilitate non-contact access for its franchisees, so that social distancing can be observed.

When it comes to dropping off the items, now predominantly to residential addresses during the lockdown, the same distancing protocols are followed.

While Public Health England advises that people receiving parcels are not at extra risk of contracting the virus, couriers will avoid asking for signatures as proof of delivery. Instead, recipients are asked to acknowledge receipt by opening their front doors or by logging a request to deposit the item in a safe place, to avoid purchases having to be returned to auction houses.

Couriers will record delivery in other ways, such as taking a photo of an item on a recipient’s porch.

During the pandemic, delivery options for art and antiques buyers will vary from location to location, Hypher says. “However, we continue to evolve and react to developments, always with a safety-first approach,” he adds.

‘We’ve got to bite the bullet’

For more than 20 years, English pottery specialist John Howard has used FedEx to send items to overseas clients.

Demand is still there and last week Howard sent rare 1820s Staffordshire figures to clients in Texas and Pennsylvania. “They were picked up from here in Oxfordshire by FedEx and delivered overnight to the US,” he says. “There’s been no tail-off in FedEx’s service – they’re like the fifth emergency service for me right now.”

Howard has similar praise for Mail Boxes Etc for “continuing to pick up my purchases from auction houses”.

The correct delivery documentation is even more critical during disrupted periods.

FedEx’s online system produces a certificate of antiquity and what the firm calls an Air Waybill – an item’s delivery note with export category code, tracking number and customer details to communicate estimated delivery time and any glitches at customs.

Howard insures his deliveries with Lloyds broker Besso, as carriers themselves don’t tend to underwrite fragile items.

At the suggestion that transit costs may rise in line with more difficult journeys, Howard shrugs. “We’ve got to bite the bullet,” he says. “We should accept extra expense if we want to trade through this and not compromise our items.”