Atelier Art's moving story about the priceless Barnes collection

Posted: June 12, 2012

Hal Jones was a young, long-haired sculptor with a lot of nerve when he showed up with some of his creations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art around 1979.

Lucky for him, he did not storm off when the late Anne d'Harnoncourt, the museum's then-director, made more of a fuss over the packaging around his works than the sculptures themselves.

Instead, Jones accepted a subcontracting job to build packing crates for the Art Museum. The wisdom of that pride-swallowing decision would be affirmed more than 30 years later when Jones' Philadelphia-based company, Atelier Art Services & Storage, landed what he recently called "the move of maybe the century."

By that, he meant the Barnes Foundation relocation.

No doubt the envy of art handlers the world over, the move involved 4,323 pieces of a priceless renowned collection by early modernists, including Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir and Picasso.

So it was both a nerve-racking and thrilling time when word came in December 2010 that Jones' locally focused firm of two dozen employees had beat out four national competitors for the Barnes job.

"At that moment I had realized that not only did we overcome a David and Goliath-type situation, but that my lifelong dedication to the care of art had manifested itself … to my staff, who had worked tirelessly on the development of the relocation plan," Jones said in a recent interview.

Once the new $150 million Barnes gallery along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway officially opened May 19, Jones finally had time to reflect on what his firm had accomplished.

Albert C. Barnes, the eccentric pharmaceuticals magnate who died in 1951, started amassing his vast art treasury at the turn of the 20th century at his mansion in Lower Merion. So sensitive was its six-mile move to Philadelphia — one that was entangled for years in litigation — that Jones is prohibited from saying how many trips Atelier's unmarked, custom-designed, climate-controlled, air-ride, GPS-tracked trucks made to pull it off. The packing alone took about a year.

What Atelier vice president James Nicholson would allow will come as no surprise to most.

"It's been a year-and-a-half straight solid worrying about it every day," he said of a job he nonetheless wouldn't have traded, calling it "an opportunity of a lifetime … the most incredible collection that we'll ever move."

Because it is so varied — paintings, sculptures, furniture, metalworks — the move was especially complex, said Nancy Leeman, senior registrar at the Barnes, who would not disclose its cost. Nor would Jones.

What helped sell the Barnes on Atelier, which had moved some of the foundation's works in the early 1990s when they went on tour, is that the company understood the complexity of the job and had proposed a plan that involved "creative and simple solutions on how to pack," Leeman said. At the core were Atelier-designed insulated crates.

"It was also appealing to us that … they were in Philadelphia," she said, adding of Jones: "He has such a level of integrity and it filters down to everybody that works for him." Most Atelier employees are artists.

Make no mistake, there were anxious moments or, in the case of the de-installation of Henri Matisse's The Dance, an anxious two days. That's how long it took to take down the 34-foot-wide, 14-foot-high, 600-pound triple-panel mural on canvas, lowered from its perch 24 feet above the floor in the Merion gallery by many sets of hands. (Hydraulics can cause problems, Leeman said.)

"No easy feat," summed up Jones, a master understater.

Atelier woodworkers built a contraption that resembled an A-frame roof to wheel the mural on and off the largest tractor-trailer available in the United States, Jones said.

At 63, the Mount Airy resident still sports a ponytail but has come a long way since d'Harnoncourt discovered his art-protecting skills. (For the record, he said she liked his artwork too.)

As president of Atelier — French for "workshop" or "studio" — he heads a privately owned enterprise that has become an entrusted caretaker and mover for many of the Philadelphia region's art institutions and private collectors, and is steadily building customers in New York and Washington, Jones said.

Arguably, Atelier's competitive stature will be enhanced as a result of the successful Barnes transport and installation.

"He can write his own ticket," predicted Leslie Pincus-Elliott, whose late father, David N. Pincus, a Philadelphia clothing manufacturer and philanthropist, developed an extraordinarily close relationship with Hal Jones rooted, in part, in the art Pincus collected.

"It's his love and respect for the art," Pincus-Elliott said of Jones' appeal to anyone in the art community "lucky enough to know" him. His handling of works, she added, is "how you or your mom would pick up a granddaughter. They're his babies."

Jones and his son, Derek, were with Pincus at his Wynnewood home when he died in December. And they were his family's choice for handling the transport of 38 works of art auctioned at Christie's in New York last month for $180 million, including a 1961 painting by Mark Rothko that sold for nearly $87 million, a record for a postwar work, according to Christie's.

"There was no question in my mind Hal had to do it," Pincus-Elliott said of that move. "He's been with [the paintings] since dad acquired them."

Derek Jones wasn't even born when his father's art-packing prowess was discovered by d'Harnoncourt. Now, at 29, he is credited by his father with helping him realize a long-held dream to operate an art-storage facility along with the moving business.

"I had attempted this a number of times," Hal Jones said last week during an interview at the 100,000-square-foot, security-intense, signless, climate-controlled (70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity) storage facility, into which Atelier moved in 2010.

For security reasons, they don't want its location published, just that it's in a former warehouse in Brewerytown. The company's woodworking shop is moving this summer from Mount Airy to a space three times as large in Brewerytown.

Unlike his parents, Derek Jones is not an artist. He went to business school at Pennsylvania State University and is now executive director of the family business.

The Jones' are as secretive about their financials as they are about their moving procedures, revealing only that gross sales have doubled the last four years and that Atelier is profitable.

Soon after his start at the Art Museum, Hal Jones formed his art-handling company. By the late 1980s, he got his first big break — a contract with the Brandywine River Museum to prepare for transport about 100 pieces of art by N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth for an exchange with Russia.

Now, he has the move of an entire museum in his portfolio.

"We used to take off the month of August," Hal Jones chuckled. "Those days are done."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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