L to R: Jennifer Harvey - Group CEO, Tze Shen Kong - CEO Asia, Srinivas Krishnan - Regional Managing Director – South Asia, Crown Worldwide Group
The business of transportation and storage does not immediately come across as a particularly interesting sector, given that most goods usually fall within mundane categories such as records and documents, mechanical or precision equipment, office furniture and heavy machinery. And yet, sometimes, inside the seemingly dull and identical containers—and entirely unknown to the people handling the shipments—there are items that are nothing short of spectacular.
Whether it be priceless works of art, crates of the finest wines, the rarest of artefacts or personal belongings worth a fortune, companies such as Crown Worldwide Group are responsible for moving them from one location to the other across the globe, ensuring their safety, security and storage.
The privately owned logistics company, founded in 1965 and headquartered in Hong Kong, has 275 facilities worldwide and generated revenues of $650 million last year. It has been present in India for 27 years, across 13 locations, and has maintained art storage facilities in Mumbai and Delhi since 2016-17. With growing demand for the storage of fine art, it is now expanding these facilities and is gradually moving from leased properties to company-owned facilities. It is also looking to start a wine storage facility in Bengaluru.
In September, the company inaugurated the Crown Records Management Vault and Fine Art Vault Storage Facility in Taloja, near Mumbai. The four-storey structure is spread across 27,616 sq ft, housing dedicated zones for fine art and vital records, and employs cutting-edge technology that results in enhanced security. In Mumbai for the inauguration, Group CEO Jennifer Harvey, CEO Asia Tze Shen Kong and Regional Managing Director-South Asia Srinivas Krishnan gave a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes while transporting and storing precious cargo. Q. Can you give an idea of what kind of diverse items you transport? Shen:
Right now, we have an exhibition for vintage suitcases that is travelling all over the world; it has gone to Japan, Singapore and Germany. In the past, we moved panda cubs from Chengdu in China to Hong Kong, as they were gifts from the Chinese government to the Hong Kong government. Harvey:
We moved the headdress of King Kamehameha of Hawaii for a global tour. It is hard to describe exactly how significant this is to Hawaiian culture and it was very emotional for our staff in Hawaii. Although this is not precious in the same way, we also moved between the UK and the US, these massive Lego installations. It’s not Louvre art, but they are fragile and important. These are very specific objects, and not really comparable to anything else. But its things like these that makes this business interesting. Not every cargo is the same. Q. Historically, Crown has moved some of the most valuable artworks in Paris, Europe and elsewhere, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa. Can you give me an example to explain what the process is like? Shen:
About a year ago, there was a project where we moved a dozen items from the Louvre Museum in Paris to the Hong Kong’s M+ museum. The move itself was really supervised by the museum curators and the process is filmed. We had fine arts experts in Paris to help crate and pack the items. The whole process was observed and directed by the museum itself. The shipment takes place, and the unpacking is done in Hong Kong. The same people who were in Paris from Louvre were there in Hong Kong to ensure that we unpack and hang the artworks to their level of standards. The whole process is actually very orchestrated. We have to share with them the type of crating that will have to be used, and the packing material. They're all developed specifically for certain art pieces. Harvey:
These packing crates are beautiful, and are works of art in themselves. They are so substantial and costly that in some of our market segments we've had to come up with alternatives because, for a private individual, the artwork is precious, but they may not want to spend $20,000 on some crate. Crates that are made for fine, museum-quality art are beautiful. Their cost is dependent on many variables, like the types of material, what's on the inside, what are the requirements, whether they are transported by ship or aircraft. For museum-level art, crates are custom-made for each piece and are used only once, unless the piece is part of a travelling exhibition and has to be moved multiple times. Also read: The road less taken: Roadcast and its logistics gambit Q. How has the demand for art storage in India increased over the past few years?
We had a very small facility in 2016-17 [in Mumbai], but in the last four to five years we have seen celebrities, diamond merchants and many other business tycoons collecting art. For fine art, we had about 400 sq ft, but then we have allotted 1,400 sq ft out of the almost 30,000 sq ft that we’ve built at Taloja. Depending on how the market grows, we might allot a larger portion for art.
In the past, bringing artworks into India was difficult. Now getting them into India is not all that difficult but putting it in storage is something that collectors don't have the space for. Based on feedback from customers, our facility is one of the best in terms of infrastructure, and access. So, we expanded our fine art vault. Q. What has been the increase in the number of such clients?
We started from a small base, and every year it has doubled. The future holds a lot of promise. Recently, a client visited us at the Taloja facility when it almost completed and said he will need the entire space for the next three years. Q. Tell us about the wine storage facility that you are working on in India?
We did some market research and found that, in India, the wine business essentially is growing at 50 percent every year and there are only three or four players in the market, and the customers are not all that happy with what is available. Since we have been in the niche logistics business, especially relocation and records, where devil is in the details, and our culture is to be really crazy about quality and not about numbers, we feel we have the process, the technology, the system and the culture to get into wine storage very soon. Shen:
We also have a wine storage facility in Hong Kong, which is one of its largest and it is state-of-the-art. It has got temperature control, humidity control, even the specialised lighting. You cannot use just any lighting; you have to use lighting with very low UV light because the UV can actually damage the wine. We really can experience the same facility here as the one in Hong Kong, and will transfer this technology to India. Srinivas:
When we did the study, we found that the threshold would be a 30,000 sq ft warehouse. But the company is yet to take a call on that. The wine storage facility in Hong Kong is in a World War II bunker, and is a heritage location, with very stringent SOPs [standard operating procedures]. So, it will be much easier to get that SOP and replicate it in India. Also read: Allcargo: Proving its mettle in a tough business Q. What kind of technologies do you have for ensuring security?
Duplication is a big issue. So, just like for records management, whenever we collect any artwork, we assign a location code and a barcode, and they are maintained at all points in time. So, if there is any request for retrieving, the same barcode and location code are matched and anyone who gets into the facility has to record it.
We are slowly getting into technologies like RFID. As of now, it is prohibitively expensive, but we feel, in the next three years, the cost will come down as more and more people start using it and then we will start using RFID as a mechanism where if I am going to take, say, 100 pieces of artwork into a storage facility, I don't have to waste time counting them or monitoring them because the moment I take it into the facility, RFID will capture the details. Harvey:
The other thing that all our fine art storage facilities really need is a proper viewing room so that private collectors or auction houses can come and view or check the artwork. Sometimes it's held by a gallery and a potential purchaser will come into our facility to look at it. So, you need to have a way to keep the storage secure while providing viewing. Srinivas:
We have a mini gallery at our Taloja facility, which is already full. We are looking to buy a piece of land in Khalapur [near Mumbai] and there we will have a separate fine art facility, which will have an in-built gallery. Training is provided by fine art experts from the UK and other locations.
We have a fine art facility in Delhi as well, which started in 2020. Again, it was a record's vault, and we allotted a certain space for fine art. And now we see that one client has asked for about 300 sq ft of that space for storing his art. It is a leased facility, and now we are going to have our own facility in Delhi; the size of the fine art facility will be based on demand. Q. What are your expansion plans in India?
We just inaugurated the new vault at Taloja. We already have a fresh piece of land in Bengaluru, and we are close to buying land in Delhi, Khalapur, Hyderabad and Coimbatore. So, all the leased facilities will be converted to owned facilities. When we own the property, we customise it to our needs with long-term investments, security is ensured, and customers get more confidence that it is a Crown-owned facility.