IT has taken hours to inspect the Qin Dynasty terracotta warrior in Beijing's freezing Military Museum, photograph him and prepare a condition report to be countersigned by three Xian museum officials. Now the slate-grey figure of the general is being lifted by five men, grasping the open tunic and shoulders, and hoisting with a strap around the bottom of his tunic, as they prepare to pack him as part of a loan of relics to the United States. Surrounded by large blue wooden crates, wads of packing material, loose bolts and chunks of styrofoam, the men are counting down in Putonghua as they lower him - and then with a crack, a piece of the base sheers off and crashes to the floor. A busted hunk of priceless artwork - and there are another 114 pieces to pack, including bronze chariots composed of 3,400 pieces. Preparing artefacts for shipping is a brain-straining task. But it is no less nail-biting an experience if the items have only sentimental value. A relative wept when she opened a crate containing carved rosewood figures and found them cracked, with arms broken off, bases chipped, and faces disfigured. The 20 figures had been wrapped in newspaper, tightly wedged together and packed in a crate lined only with silicon paper. 'They were the only things we had to remind us of Asia. Once we found the first one, we spent ages collecting the others. Now they look like junk-shop finds,' she said. A third tale in this sad saga of shattered mementoes is of a keidan tansu, a Japanese stepped chest in four parts. While being brought from Japan to Hong Kong, it was shipped around 'so many places I can't remember', said the owner. Sections eventually turned up in San Francisco. The doors had fallen in and were chipped and the sides were badly rubbed. The base had been lost - but the owner gave up on it after more than four months of calls and faxes to the packers. 'They said they'd look into having another one made, but it was an antique!' Welcome to the nightmare of packing up and shipping out. With Asia's economic downturn forcing many expatriates out of the SAR, fears particularly of an exodus of American and Japanese firms, and with work on major projects like the new airport coming to an end, that is an awful lot of nails in packing crates, not to mention the goodies tourists take home from Hollywood Road. The well-heeled turn to specialists, expecting that signing on the dotted line when the packers turn up and list goods, their dimensions, weight and value will be all it takes to guarantee their painted screen or stone buddha arrives in one piece and on time. The rest of us stay up nights wrestling with brown paper and string or call in the cheapest packing firm and take our chances. So what do the experts know that we do not? What do they do for their money? 'People think packing is a very fancy business,' says Sotheby's shipping co-ordinator Sammy Tam who often accompanies priceless pieces around the world. 'But in fact all that really needs to happen is that the piece is isolated from the environment, whether it's crystal or silverware or whatever. And it is all usually firstly just wrapped in tissue paper - but there is an art to it!' You will be paying extra for the art of a specialist artwork packer. Not that shipping ever was a matter of just paying the shipping agent. Hidden costs include duties and taxes, brokers' fees, storage, an insurance premium and export declarations. The key to shipping artwork is to lessen risks and specialists are one way of doing that. You do not just hire them for packing techniques and expertise. They offer climate-controlled warehouses and trucks, and vehicles with far better suspension than average, which means less vibration. They can clear shipments with customs electronically before arrival. They are in touch with fine arts agents abroad. Ask friends, antique dealers, galleries or auction houses for recommendations. Find out if the company is a member of any recognised professional body, usually the International Convention of Exhibition and Fine Art Transporters. YOUR other main decision is whether to send by air or sea. Haulage firms talk of 'limiting the period away from your hand'. So even though taking a lot of things out of the SAR may mean considering sea even for expensive goods, says Mr Tam, 'you don't want expensive art hanging around. It increases the danger a lot. The shorter time it is out of your sight the better'. The uncertain conditions at sea could lead to a lot of restoration at the other end. 'So in comparison to the cost of the artwork, it may be wiser to shoulder the cost of air freight,' advises Thomas Yuen of Michelle International, one of Hong Kong's busiest artwork shippers. Hong Kong to London by sea takes about three weeks. A wait in customs sheds at either end could add another two. Even shipping to Taipei can take six weeks. It pays to be aware of the route the vessel will take. Check where your container is going to be on the boat - discuss it with your carriers, advises Mr Yuen. 'Try to get it placed in the middle of the boat, away from the sides and not near the top.' Exposed to the sun, temperatures can rapidly rise in containers, warping wood and cracking paint. 'Try to get the container loaded at the latest time possible and to have it cleared as quickly as possible at the other end,' he says. Check customs regulations if you are exporting antiques. Some countries offer free import duty on antiques, but you may need a test report dating and proving the piece is genuine. Universities can often supply them. And you may need separate insurance. As Daphne King, manager of Alisan Fine Arts, points out: 'It can be difficult to get something worth more than $500 insured if you're thinking of shipping it through a regular firm.' Consider having reconditioning or restoration work done here - it may be harder to find the expertise outside the country of origin - or get recommendations of contacts before you leave. Few items could be more fragile to ship than pottery, porcelain and ceramics. So what tricks of the trade help keep your artefacts in one piece? Pola Antebi, associate director of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Arts Department at Christie's Hong Kong, suggests: 'With a painted pottery piece, a Han horse, for instance, wrap it in clear plastic wrap so the pigment doesn't come off.' And Mr Yuen adds: 'You never really know whether antique pottery has been restored or not. And low kiln temperatures may mean colour easily comes off, so you protect with plastic but you also wrap and unwrap very slowly.' Pottery and porcelain gets moved very carefully. If heavy, pieces may be packed in a cardboard box, then a stronger plywood box built to surround that. Internal wrapping of pottery and porcelain is crucial. Foam is cut to the shape of the objects and packed in tightly. Paintings may be a better bet as reminders of Asia. Jonathan Wattis, owner of Wattis Fine Art, says: 'Works on paper adjust more readily to a less humid atmosphere than, for example, wood, furniture and statues.' But canvases are surprisingly easily broken or damaged, though not everyone is going to be shipping a Van Gogh out on a doomed Swiss Air flight. More common disasters are paintings moved horizontally rather than vertically, creating a much greater chance of them being broken if anyone tries to bend them. Paintings can easily crack, too, if exposed to the sun or cold, carved frames obviously need special protection, and framed and glass-mounted pictures should be taped so that if the glass shatters, it does not puncture the canvas. All of this means paintings that can be rolled up are probably the easiest thing to ship. When the picture is being wrapped, no packing material should touch its surface. 'If you've just commissioned something, make sure it's dry. It can take weeks, and if someone's using bubble-wrap to pack it, you could be left with a polka-dot pattern!' warns Alice Piccus, of Malborough Fine Arts. Silicon paper should be placed over the front of the work, not touching the picture and not entirely sealed, to let air circulate. A piece of cardboard is then fitted over the silicon and spongy foam is cut to the shape of the frame and must fit tightly. THE painting is loaded into a cardboard box, then into a wooden crate lined with waterproof paper. The box will be cushioned from the sides of the crate by polystyrene peanuts. Never take things for granted when packing. Furniture may look so strong it seems impossible to damage, but antique wood, especially at the joints, is often extremely fragile. Even if the piece arrives in mint condition, cautions Ms Antebi, homes in Europe and North America are considerably drier and central heating can rapidly warp wood. 'Antique furniture may crack even if it's been around for 500 years,' adds Mr Yuen. 'It acclimatises here and then you ship it somewhere quite dry like Canada and it suffers. No one wants to live with a humidifier on to counteract that.' If you love the piece, of course you will still ship it. Doors should be secured with string, and the whole piece wrapped in tissue, then bubble-wrap. It should be covered in cardboard before being loaded into a box which is then placed, cushioned by polystyrene chips, inside a crate. Only certain parts will safely support the piece. 'It may be more sensible to ship pieces upside down,' says Mr Yuen. 'Tables are an obvious example. Extra battens around furniture protect against it - just in case anyone steps on it or drops something on top during transit.'