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Donating Art and the Hassle of Transporting Art Internationally

This column deals with a collision between the wonderful act of donating art and the work of properly crating it as well as the especially grueling job of arranging with an international carrier to transport it securely to its destination. The last item is the worst.I'll describe the details and pitfalls to avoid for your benefit. May you have an easier time of it than I did!


I've donated art before and it was a breeze. Donating art is a gift worth giving and not a problem -- unless it's large and you're giving it across borders.

two large art assemblages by Janet Strayer Art

It all started with my having created two large assemblage art works, shown in these photos. They were very engaging to make and others reacted to them with interest and delight. I especially enjoyed watching children interact with these works during a pre-gallery installation. I decided, given my long-standing commitment to developmental psychology, that they would be excellent items to donate to a NFP setting like a hospital or care centre involved with children and families. I spoke with several colleagues in the area of human development, and all was arranged with an excellent recipient, the Amego Foundation near Boston. They were delighted to have such a gift, and I was delighted to send it.


Packaging the Artwork: Building Wooden Crates

My next task was big: how to package the work for shipment. A friend volunteered and enlisted another for the job of making custom-built wooden crates for these unusually dimensional artworks. Each work contains 3D decorated birdhouses and other fragile protrusions of natural items like twigs as well a "laundry line" of feathers strung between two of the birdhouses. I supplied the materials for the crates and two friends built them in their workshop. They appreciated the art and did a great job, as you might see in their impromptu photos. Inside each of the wooden crates, the artwork was securely fastened and buffered against abrasion. The outside of the crates were securely sealed and built to withstand the rigours of truck transport. The crates were built to protect the art from movement shifts and abrasion. The green circles on the BirdCentral photo are the first places to detach the artwork on arrival, noted in the set of instructions sent to the recipient. So far so good! Next comes the awful part!

custom-built crate for artwork by Janet Strayer
Custom-built wooden crate for BirdCentral - the art lies on cardboard protection from wood abrasion

custom-built shipping crate for Assemblage by Janet Strayer
Laundry Day in Birdland inside its crate

International Shipping

Arranging for international transport can be an ordeal. I wanted to keep shipping costs reasonable, so went the common route and chose UPS international freight services. BEWARE. They are used to dealing with businesses who probably have a person or department dedicated to shipping issues, not to helping private individuals send large crates. It took forever and many conversations with multiple personnel to get the information required to fill out a bill of lading. I had to begin at the beginning with each person, sort out contradictory information, and finally arrive at these "facts". I hope they will be helpful to many of you.


First off, the UPS international freight site has been renamed TForce Freight. Curiously, this name change was not mentioned on the UPS online site that started me on my long journey to get the shipping details straight.


Every field has its acronyms. Shipping is no exception. You get to learn fun terms like "LTL" which means "limited truck load". I decided the safest and economical choice for my "non-stackable" crated items would be LTL.

international shipping BOL shown as an example for shipping artwork -- for Janet Strayer Art
Bill of Lading for Janet Strayer's shipment

The required Bill of Lading, shown here has features you need to know. The dimensions and weight of your crate are easy enough to supply. Now comes the arcane feature: what "Freight Class" is your item? That refers to what's inside the box. You are to enter a number from 50 to 500. Don't try the roulette wheel! This number matters a lot in determining shipping costs, and you'll be penalized if you underestimate. The sections highlighted in green show the most troublesome part.


Freight Class: Since no one at UPS can or will explain "freight class" to you, you look it up on the internet. The information I found was on a site speaking to shipping specialists (so that's what you have to become). The Freight Class helps the carrier determine how much to charge for your shipment, along with other factors such as weight, distance traveled, and any additional services. Typically, the higher the freight class number, the more expensive the freight class fee.


These factors determine Freight Class: density, storage, handling, and risk liability. Of these, the least obvious is Density. Contrary to what you may think, the higher the density, the lower the classification and the lower the cost. A crate containing bricks will cost less than the same crate containing sacks of feathers! Why? Because feathers are less profitable to shippers due to their lower weight per density. Sacks of feathers can take up just as much space as the crate of bricks, so the shipper needs them to earn more than their weight warrants. There are some online tables that list the freight class for different items to help you determine yours. When I got my head around some of this and had the info ready, I called UPS and asked to speak with someone there who could help me confirm an exact number. I had to plead. She said 110 and, though I'm not sure exactly what "110" means, I was grateful for a clear response.


Customs clearance is another critical factor in international shipping. I kept explaining to UPS that mine was a donation, yet they still told me to contact a US Customs broker. Gads, this donation was going to cost a lot! I reached said agent, listed online by phone, who assured me (no charge), just to write into the lading form "Section 321 Entry" because it was a donation. Highlight that.


Given the two crates were over 6 ft. and weighed about 65 lbs. each, I had UPS/TForce pick them up from my storage in Vancouver on Friday afternoon. They arrived within the allotted afternoon time slot. Good thing, because I had to catch a ferry back to Saturna Island home and studio the same evening. Only one driver came, but he and my friend were able easily to load the crates onto the truck.

Commercial Invoice

I handed the driver the lading form I'd completed, thinking all was done. Then he asked for the commercial Invoice. My understanding was that I didn't need one for a donation, and showed him that "Section 321 Entry" was clearly highlighted on my lading form. The driver didn't have a clue about this, was new to his job, and insisted I needed a commercial invoice. "OK, I'll fill it out, just hand it to me". He didn't have one and didn't know how to get one. Talk about job specificity! That was the straw that nearly broke this already-broken camel's back! The driver allowed me to speak on his phone with his supervisor. I recited my "Section 321" mantra. The supervisor said OK and told the driver he could pick up my crates. What a relief! I'd been stressed-out by this shipping stuff for much too long. I went to Saturna, happy as ever to be there and have this shipping stuff settled. Now I would just wait to see that all was delivered well.


Not so! Monday's email from TForce told me to fill out a Commercial Invoice immediately and that I'd be charged $30/day storage for any delay in getting this to them. I completed all I could of the attached form and was able to reach the agent by phone about the unfilled sections. He explained that, even with Section 321, a commercial invoice is required that essentially states no commercial transaction is involved. You still must put a value on the items, so I declared the material costs and described the items concretely. The agent's return-emailed confirmation that he'd sent the form onto Billing and they'd let me know if any further issues occurred. So many different departments for possible vexation! That's the secret weapon of industrialization: no one person or department takes overall responsibility. Each employee lives in a mini-fiefdom. I do think, though, that companies can at least be better integrated. After writing that, I received a most welcome call from the agent I'd spoken with about the Commercial Invoice. He told me the truck was en route! Thank you, kind Mr. R. Chan!


That's how it stands as of writing this now*. My gut has been wrenched silly by this process. Now my fingers are crossed that all will proceed well. I know the recipients love the gift. I'm hopeful they won't suffer any shipping-related difficulties because of it. Please cross your fingers with me on this one!


It's gotta be easier than this, folks! Hope this column helps should you ever face similar issues. In the meantime, keep a creative and generous spirit alive.

Made It!

GOOD NEWS: all was safely delivered to its destination about two work weeks after pick-up. It took longer than expected, but we're all so relieved that all arrived in perfect condition. There were, correctly,, no customs duties , though I don't know if it the crates were held for inspection.The crates were intact upon arrival. Yippee.


So I leave this column wishing you HAPPY TRAILS to your art-shipping ventures!








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