How do you move $75 million paintings that are 550 years old and weigh more than 500 pounds? Very carefully, of course.

It took a crew of eight under the watchful eye of a Scottish expert to wrestle a pair of Titian masterpieces out of their traveling crates and onto a wall at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last week.

Overflowing with nymphs and goddesses, the paintings are the centerpiece of "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting," opening Sunday at the Minneapolis museum. The two pictures alone are valued at more than $150 million and, before this show, had not left the British Isles in more than 200 years.

On loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, the show includes 13 paintings -- rendered in the lush, ripe colors for which 16th-century Venice is legendary -- and a dozen drawings by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and other A-list artists of the era.

"Titian is one of the greatest artists who ever lived and these are two of his greatest paintings, so that alone is worth the price of admission," said Patrick Noon, the Minneapolis museum's painting curator.

Sex and the Titians

The big Titians are so beloved in Britain that the country's blue-collar tabloids helped raise millions of pounds "to save them for the nation" when they were about to go on the auction block three years ago.

Even "Sex and the City" TV star Kim Cattrall got into the act with a fundraising stunt, assembling a group of burlesque performers to pose nude with her in a photo reenactment of one of the works. That painting, "Diana and Actaeon," depicts a buff young hunter reacting in shock after stumbling onto the nude goddess bathing in a forest glade with a bevy of nymphs who are experiencing severe wardrobe malfunctions.

Then owned by the Duke of Sutherland, the pictures had been on loan to the National Galleries in Edinburgh since 1945. Experts estimated they could go for up to $200 million each. Instead, the duke offered them to the museum for 50 million pounds each, about $75 million at the time. Within months the museum raised the money for "Diana and Actaeon" (mostly from English and Scottish government grants), and promised to buy the other picture by the end of 2012.

The paintings have a complicated and colorful past, too. Titian painted them between 1556 and 1559 for young King Philip II of Spain. By the early 1700s they were in Paris in the legendary collection of the Orléans family, relatives of the French king. The Duc d'Orleans sold them in 1792, shortly before he was guillotined during the French revolution. Soon they turned up in London, where they were bought by a consortium of British aristocrats. During World War II the Sutherlands sent them to Scotland to save them from Nazi bombers, a smart decision since the family's London house was severely damaged in the blitzkrieg.

Unmarked trucks

Art of this caliber demands special security and handling. It is so valuable that the show probably wouldn't have happened if the U.S. government hadn't provided indemnification -- essentially an insurance policy -- to cover the paintings' stay.

The pictures flew to the United States in custom-designed cases accompanied by couriers who watch their every move. They landed first in Atlanta, where they were shown at the High Museum until Jan. 2. Then they headed for Minneapolis in three climate-controlled trucks equipped with high-tech suspension systems. Each truck had a courier and two drivers for the nonstop, 21-hour run.

"There are no markings on the trucks and no word about when we leave," said Alastair Patten, the Scottish museum's senior art handler. In Minneapolis he watched as the paintings were removed from their padded crates and lowered gently onto a quilted pad before being inched across the floor to their spots. Then the paintings were raised by forklift and carefully screwed to special wall brackets, four each at top and bottom. Since the time they left Scotland the paintings have always been upright -- never flat, which might mar the delicate paint that is further protected by double layers of shatterproof, no-glare glass.

"Speed is not the essence" in hanging a painting, Patten said. "If it takes three or four hours, so be it."

The Minneapolis museum's staff is equally fussy. Exhibition designer Roxy Ballard selected three different colors of Benjamin Moore paint for the gallery walls: Amethyst Shadow, Northwood Brown and Bordeaux Red. But the brown looked greenish under gallery lights and seemed to suck the life out of Titian's elegant "Virgin and Child," dulling Mary's lustrous red gown and casting a sickly pall over the landscape. So Ballard had that wall repainted in the moody amethyst hue.

"The amethyst makes the jewel tones of the painting look brighter and fresher," said Ballard. "We want a rich look, but nothing that competes with the paintings."

The museum declined to say how much it was paying to rent the show from the Scottish museum, but noted that it was considerably less than its larger 2009-10 exhibit "The Louvre and the Masterpiece," which featured more than 60 objects spanning 4,000 years.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431