Known only to art-world insiders, the Oakland moving man—entrusted with handling the most precious of objects—considers retirement after 43 years as the gatekeeper to his mysterious warehouses.
By Heather Wood Rudulph
Amid West Oakland’s cracked-window factories producing everything from lead pipes to sausage casings, and the endless rows of shanties crammed beneath Interstate 580, you’ll find a treasure trove of art. But you’ll likely never see any of it.
When the world’s biggest art museums, high-end collectors and famous artists need to install, move or store their art—ranging from priceless Impressionist paintings to 20-ton iron sculptures—they turn to Scott Atthowe, the visionary behind Atthowe Fine Art Services, a storage, shipping and installation business devoted to getting art safely from point A to point B. He helps museums exchange and lend art, makes it possible for private collectors to donate to a gallery, or sometimes just helps individual artists haul their materials around. The cavernous storage facilities Atthowe owns also serve as a waystation for weeks, months or decades.
Atthowe’s four blank-walled warehouses along Market Street are the kinds of buildings that should lure taggers, but stand untouched, hinting at the high security that is invisible to passersby and instrumental to the business. The mysteries within are unknown—Atthowe maintains strict confidentiality of his storage clients—but the walls certainly have stories to tell.
A tour of the main building reveals rows upon rows of stacked crates filling storage units that extend several stories high. Narrow concrete pathways lead to alarm-locked doors that open to reveal climate-controlled spaces that provide rare safe havens for delicate, ancient paintings and sculptures made from materials that would weather and disintegrate in too much heat or moisture. Odd-shaped structures ensconced in foam cocoons occupy the spaces that will fit them—from tiny, custom-built boxes to half the volume of an entire room. Another hallway and series of security doors leads to a row of gated lockers, each about the size of a single-car garage. These are the rentable spaces for Atthowe’s clients who desire that added layer of ghost-key security.
Atthowe is a third-generation shipping proprietor. He’s a soft-spoken, kind-eyed man with a long white beard that somehow makes him look much younger than his 72 years, perhaps a credit to the current hipster-beard trend among Millennial men. He has created a very different business from that of his grandfather’s, which opened in 1928 and focused on barge transport; or his father’s, which expanded to trucking the same year the Bay Bridge was built. The father sold the business in 1970 right around the time Atthowe was getting his master’s in art at California State University–Sacramento.
Atthowe’s plan was to become a studio artist. He created large-scale sculptures using heavy, earthy materials, a nod to his undergraduate background in engineering and architecture. He needed a way to haul his own materials around, and he also needed to make money. So Atthowe bought a three-axle truck and started helping other artists transport their materials and artwork. With no competition at the time, word-of-mouth spread quickly and Atthowe realized an opportunity to invent an industry.
And he nearly did. Atthowe Fine Art Services was one of the first art-shipping businesses on the West Coast, and the first to offer climate-controlled trucks. What began as a one-truck, one-man operation in Sacramento has turned into a cross-country transportation business with a fleet of seven air-ride, climate-controlled vehicles, each worth close to $175,000 once outfitted.
“Getting into this business was sort of a sideline,” says Atthowe, sitting in his large office atop the main warehouse, its walls decorated with paintings from well-known professionals like Jim Finnegan and Brian Long, as well as pieces from his employees, almost all of whom are working artists. “The idea was to work part-time at this and also work in the studio.”
Instead, Atthowe has built a successful shipping business, and created an artistic sanctuary at the same time. For 43 years Atthowe has employed nearly all artists. He trains them in construction, building, moving and crating, and offers them flexible schedules. Most employees work just three to four days a week so they can devote time to their studio work. “And if they are getting ready for a showing and need to take a month off, that’s acceptable,” Atthowe says. “Letting people do their own art really helps them do their job.”
There is a methodology to hiring artists to work in a large-scale shipping and construction business—beyond having a soft spot for starving creatives. They’re good with their hands and natural problem-solvers. “Being an artist, you know a lot more about the fragility of certain objects having handled them in the professional world,” Atthowe says. “Many artists have some kind of construction background, so they are comfortable experimenting with different materials and designing something new.”
Adaptability and innovation are key to a business that deals in custom solutions for treasured art. Atthowe recalls the first time he moved a Picasso (“Blue Nude”) and how it led to an innovation in temperature-controlled crates that maintain the perfect environment for up to eight hours. When China lent the United States its “Three Heads Six Arms” statue—on display at San Francisco’s Civic Center between 2010 and 2011, Atthowe’s team did the installation. The 15-ton, 26-foot-tall copper and steel statue came by sea from China in four shipping containers, disassembled and with no directions. It was like an epic IKEA project, but instead of running to your toolbox for that extra Phillips head, you’re building custom gantries, and winging it with a valuable piece of international art and culture.
“You can’t really think of the value of what you’re moving. You just have to constantly think of how to move it and carefully make sure everything is prepared correctly,” Atthowe explains, once again citing the value in the meticulous nature of his team of artists. “This is one of the few businesses where accidents maybe might happen, but mistakes are not allowed. You have to be 100 percent on. You just do things at a little different pace. We take our time and always work in teams.”
After four decades at the helm, Atthowe doesn’t seem ready to retire, though he admits he has “a plan” and has scaled back his workweek to a mere 50 hours.
“I’ve seen more art than most people have. I get to go into museum storage spaces and experience things up close. You’re packing it, and right up in it. It’s been a lifetime of private showings,” he says. “Now I have a house that I’m doing landscaping in and it seems like the art is calling me again. Things I thought about 40 years ago are happening in my yard. When you’re any kind of artist, your life sort of rotates around the art. Your appreciation for it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s a way of life.”