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Giacometti drawings at MBE Cambridge

MBE Cambridge and the personal service that helped make headlines in the art world

When Cambridge auction house, Cheffins, cleared the effects of the late antiques dealer Eila Grahame from her showroom in London, they found some drawings long believed to have been lost.  


Attributed to one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists, Alberto Giacometti, the world waited while Cheffins had the drawings verified in Paris, and Mail Boxes Etc. Cambridge was on hand to help get them there and back safely.

The pencil sketches discovered by Cheffins were on a sheet of paper.  On one side were studies of various heads, and on the other a nude woman.  

They looked like Giacometti’s work and were signed and dated 1947, but that stands for very little in the art world, so authentication was the vital next step.  

“We didn’t know, but our gut feeling was that this was genuine,” says Martin Millard, director of fine art at Cheffins.  “What we needed was a trusted partner to ship something that had a potentially large value.”

Custom made

Franchisee Greig Martin and his team at MBE Cambridge have provided auction logistics services to Cheffins for the past 15 years and were a natural choice for this shipment.  

“They were able to offer just what we needed – transport to Paris and a dedicated delivery time at the Fondation Giacometti so the drawings could be verified by their experts,” explains Millard.  “We were also working to a very tight deadline, and they guaranteed to meet that.” 

Greig Martin, franchisee at MBE Cambridge, takes up the story.  “We are used to taking good care of antiques and works of art, packing them appropriately and using priority couriers to get them to their destination, but it was clear once we’d spoken to Cheffins that a little more care was needed here.  Because the valuation in Paris had to be by appointment, this ruled out the regular courier options.  In addition, Cheffins wanted to take out compensation cover to the value of £100,000 just in case the drawings got lost or damaged in transit.  This is more than we’d normally offer, so I had to make special arrangements with head office to secure that amount.”

The next challenge was creating the right packaging for the drawings.  “It’s just a small piece of paper,” continues Martin.  “Because of its value we decided we would tailor-make a portfolio case for it, which we lined with acid-free paper and placed inside a custom-made wooden box for extra security and portability.”

To make sure it was delivered at a specific time, Martin had to find a special services courier.  

“The company that took the box delivered it to the Giacometti Foundation at the exact time they requested it.  The foundation had the drawings for about two or three weeks, and then Cheffins contacted us to say they had been verified as genuine and that they wanted to get them back.”

Getting the drawings back proved more challenging than getting them there, however.  After some email traffic, it was revealed that the foundation would agree to put the drawings inside the portfolio, but they would not put it into the box or pack it up for safe transit.  They insisted that someone come to their premises to pack it and take it away.

“I didn’t know whether I could guarantee that the special service delivery people would package the drawings correctly,” continues Martin.  “So I looked up the Eurostar timetable and decided to go and do it myself.”

Above and beyond

For Greig Martin, this was about taking the extra care that this special consignment needed, but also about keeping control of the shipment so that he could guarantee the service he’d offered his client.

When he went to Paris on the 5.40am train, finding the Giacometti Foundation proved quite a challenge – it is in a walled courtyard without any signs outside to advertise its presence. 

He had an appointment to collect the drawings and he arrived on time, packed them up and took his precious consignment back to the UK, getting home at 10pm.  He delivered the package to Cheffins the following morning.

Martin Millard didn’t know that Greig had personally couriered the drawings back from Paris until recently.  “I knew he had sorted it all out for us perfectly, and now I see he went above and beyond to ensure the service met our exacting standards,” he says.  “The fact that MBE Cambridge was able to offer this service was crucial to the whole process.”

Under the hammer

The drawings had an estimated value of £40-£60,000 but they far exceeded that when they went under the hammer on 12 October 2017, selling at £130,000 – a record for a regional auctioneer for modern art.

They caused quite a stir in the media, both before and after the sale, and we’re delighted to be able to shed a little light on the story-within-a-story that shows what goes on behind the scenes when an amazing discovery requires a little extra TLC.

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