Shipping might not be a glamorous aspect of the art industry, but it is an essential service crucial to successful exhibitions, acquisitions, and archival collections, as well as the growing import and export of art.
For the Frieze Los Angeles art fair, this means dozens of galleries — from across the city and around the world — shipping artworks to the Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar in hopes they will be snapped up by collectors, curators, and other institutions.
Art shipping and transport is a service often provided at a premium by logistics companies like Maquette Fine Art Services and Crozier Fine Arts. Many of these companies offer art shipping and transport in conjunction with custom touring crates and protective containers, shipping preparation, and installation, as well as short and long-term storage. Art insurance is a separate matter, purchased from companies like Chubb and Berkeley Asset Protection.
In addition to arranging transportation logistics, art shipping companies help clients navigate security issues, customs, taxes, duties, as well as import and export regulations for different countries. With the international nature of the modern art industry, all of this is necessary in order to ensure artworks are moved safely and securely to and from artist studios, museums, galleries, and 300-plus art fairs and biennales, as well as the homes of private collectors.
Here are the most important things experts told ARTnews about art shipping:
Costs can quickly rack up
The most basic expenses to ship a framed artwork like a drawing or painting from a Los Angeles gallery to the Santa Monica Airport include a crate; internal packaging; a secure, temperature-controlled, air-cushioned, unmarked vehicle; moving staff; and a truck driver. This process can quickly become more expensive and complicated when a gallery features multiple artists, requires custom crates for large, heavy and/or fragile sculptures or ceramics, is shipping the items long-distance or internationally, or needs express delivery.
“It’s not uncommon for people to call a week before,” Fine Art Shippers cofounder Ilya Kushnirskiy told ARTnews.
For the transport of rare, valuable, and/or high-profile artworks, like Thomas Kaplan’s loan of Vermeer’s Young Woman Sitting at a Virginal currently on display in the sold-out retrospective at the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam, it’s not unusual for “white glove” services in Europe to include a security escort to help ensure the safe and secure arrival to their final destination.
If you’re ever tempted to ship a piece of art yourself, don’t use bubble wrap. Shippers have told James Ferrer, head of fine art and vice president at the Lockton insurance brokerage firm, that the popular packaging material imprints on the artworks.
“It’s very difficult to get that off the surface, particularly on an oil painting,” he said. “They generally use acid-free paper so that there’s no damage being caused to the artworks.”
Don’t forget about taxes
Galleries pay taxes on the operational expenses of bringing in items for an art fair, but sales and use taxes are paid by art buyers and collectors.
While imported works of art into the US are duty free, state and local taxes on art purchases at fairs like Frieze LA can add up to more than 10 percent. If an art collector or buyer goes to Frieze LA and plans on shipping a purchased piece to another state like New York, they may pay a lower sales tax (or none at all) but be assessed for a use tax at the final destination instead. The latter is payable directly to the Tax Department when filing an annual income tax return. Only Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana, Oregon, or Alaska do not have sales tax or use taxes.
The most famous example of an art collector failing to properly pay taxes on his art is former Tyco International chairman Dennis Kozlowski, who agreed in 2006 to pay over $20 million to settle charges of avoiding New York sales tax on a dozen paintings, including pieces by Monet and Renoir.
Sea freight is often not viable
While sustainability is becoming a growing concern in the art industry, and the Frieze Los Angeles art fair takes place near the busiest port in the United States, experts told ARTnews that most art shipped to high-profile events and exhibitions is done by plane.
Sea freight has 47 times fewer carbon emissions and is 12–16 times cheaper than air cargo rates. But experts told ARTnews the increased risk of damage and longer processing time often makes shipping artworks by sea a non-viable option for many art fairs and exhibitions.
“We really can’t plan things advanced enough for us to pursue sea travel,” Trey Hollis, director of exhibitions at the New York gallery P.P.O.W., told ARTnews. “A good industry standard for a local delivery or an international delivery is for things to be in transit for the least amount of time possible. You want things to get to their destination, and we pay accordingly.”
The are many other ways shipping by sea is less than ideal for art beyond the significantly slower delivery time and lower costs.
“Once the container is loaded onto the vessel, it’s very difficult to control exactly where that container is going to be set in the boat,” Ferrer said. “You wouldn’t want your multimillion pound artworks in with tractor materials or farming goods. And also that it’s still below deck, because as soon as you get a massive storm, obviously the the containers on the deck are going to be washed overboard.”
In 2020, a partnership between Crozier and the Independent Art Fair offered a discounted rate to LA-based galleries in exchange for sending works in one chunk. The goal was to reduce the waste associated with numerous shipments of work common at international art fairs.
You get what you pay for
Ferrer was blunt when offering his top advice is for new buyers of art: It’s worth using a professional packing and shipping company instead of Federal Express.
“They will get there as quickly as possible and quicker than anyone else, but whether it arrives in the same condition as it left in is that is just the question,” he said with a laugh.
Ferrer said the worst thing a buyer could do is spend a significant sum for a piece and then cheap out on its transport home, setting themselves up for damage, disappointment, or even possible loss.
“You want them to be in the same condition that you saw them on on the booth and in the art fair. It’s worth the investment,” he said.