REPORTAGE. The top-secret Chenue company has been transporting works of art for 250 years. And houses the largest invisible museum in France.
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It is still early that morning and a brigade of stage managers, curators and movers is working silently in the darkness 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 property intact. Six smiling boys work calmly, deactivate the safety mechanisms, take down the Rocking-chair which must return to Pompidou and transport the impressive Return of 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 Pouce de César – 12 meters, 18 tons – on the forecourt of La Défense, and who, in 2008, transported one of the copies of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker to Beijing. . Rodin to whom the company already presented, during the artist's lifetime, invoices for the transport of his works…
< img class="aligncenter" src="/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/c4704827654172fe9ebc42ad233b6f67.jpg" alt="Chenue: with masterpiece conveyors" />
Shockproof. Thin as a thread, pierced ears and arms covered with tattoos, Damien de Sousa, the very young team leader, carefully distributes the shock-absorbing foam around La Femme au chapeau. 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 the 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, says Damien, important works, I can tell you that I've seen them, and that I'm enjoying 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,” says Julien Da Costa Noble, general manager of Chenue, who laughingly remembers the move of the reserves from the Musée de l'Orangerie in 2003. hundreds of millions of euros, we told the management of the museum “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…”
Century 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 age-old know-how in 1994, the new owners had two intuitions. 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 canvases or worthless furniture in one box, and in the neighbor masterful works,” explains Da Costa Noble. In fact, we only manage 30% of these reserves, the rest is simply storage. We content ourselves with offering optimal safety, temperature and hydrometric conditions, without necessarily knowing what our customers deposit with us. » 70% of Chenue's reserves are however made up of public collections, which makes all of its warehouses one of the largest – invisible – museums in France…
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 family business Chenue would therefore have disappeared a little … “They are criticized, but the truth is that everything depends on the teams on which we fall, tempers a museum manager. At Chenue, when you work with the good guys, you still benefit from incredible know-how. »
< strong>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 this morning with the agility of a cat, 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 Studio of the Painter, by Gustave Courbet, the guys from Chenue placed cushions on the floor of the Musée d'Orsay, simple pillows on which they slid, without incident , the canvas of 6 meters by 4…
That day, in the almost empty exhibition hall, Ali, after wrapping La Fillette au cerceau, which must return in 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 signed up last January.
Succession Picasso/ADAGP/Xavier POPY/REA FOR “LE POINT ” (x2) – Chenue S.A. (x2) – Granger NYC/Archive Street