Shipping Art Internationally

You can’t put a price on a priceless object, even when it has to be shipped, but you can protect it along the way.

Packing up a painting, sculpture, photo or the components of an installation for international travel is nerve wracking for every artist, gallery owner and curator. But it doesn’t have to be panic-inducing.

There are some well-established strategies for succeeding at getting your artwork from here to there intact. With some care, forethought and the following guidelines, you can ensure that your artwork arrives without a scratch.

A lot of what is discussed below comes down to the concept of a carrier that is specifically experienced in shipping art internationally. Sure, mail services can offer generic packages, but there’s no comparison between those and the professional outfit that moves art from place to place as a full-time enterprise.


Before You Pack: Step one is to document the state of the object you are shipping. Photograph everything from every angle prior to the first layer of wrapping and before the first crate is filled. This is the record of the artwork’s condition that you hope you’ll never have to use, but you want to have it on hand nonetheless.

Packing: There’s no one-size-fits-all for shipping art. Artwork must be protected on the level of the individual piece. Foam and crate dimensions must be custom-made for your particular object. Don’t work with a shipping service that can’t or won’t take that step. You want to see an internal framework with bracing and padding to frame the artwork within the crate so that nothing can move during transit.

Furthermore, confirm that every element of the transportation process will be climate-controlled, protecting the piece from heat, cold and humidity. If your artwork is being shipped overseas, make sure the shipping company you hire uses moisture prevention bagging or vapor barrier bagging. This will prevent salt water or vapor from harming your sensitive item.

Make certain that all labels are marked clearly. International ports and shipping centers mean language differences, so make certain that you minimize reading confusion by writing on your shipping labels in all caps. Letter and number codes for provinces and streets can vary in unusual ways, so triple check every address.

Customs Considerations: The dynamics of crossing borders with merchandise are ever shifting.Some years a country won’t let certain kinds of wood into their territory (the concern is usually insect related). Other times politics can interfere with the easy transit of a gallery or museum’s materials. Research is key to a successful shipment – and again, a pro shipping company is going to key you into just these kinds of variables and help reduce the hassle of shipping by addressing these issues in advance. For example, these companies will take care of the above crate problem by using heat-treated wood crates to reduce the risk of pest infestation. The box will be labeled with a “bug stamp,” which certifies it safe for international travel.

Insurance: Maybe you’re thinking theft, but the experienced art shipper is also thinking damage. Fact is, according to the New York Times, during the last decade, damage outpaced crime when it came to shipping art overseas. Also a concern is a legitimately lost article. You want to buy protection against all of these events.

An insurance policy on your international art shipment should cover every detail – from packing to pick-up, right up to the point of delivery. You also want a carrier that will insure for the full value of the piece. Some will try to set coverage at the sale price or less. Talk with insurance professionals who have experience dealing with fine art. Art couriers with insurance knowledge will understand the threats of certain materials, such as certain kinds of bubble wrap that can leak chemicals when warm (potentially ruining paintings and photos). The savvy art shipper will also know, for example, that sending and receiving fragile goods in Honduras during the stormy months of June–November requires more careful consideration than at other times of the year.

Always go with a company that will not only adequately insure your expensive piece, but has the knowledge to not make avoidable mistakes that can severely damage your piece while in transit. The nail-biting factor when shipping art may never go away, but with knowledgeable support from an experienced shipper, you’re in shape to get through each step with assurance that everything will go smoothly from beginning to end. Then follow the above guidelines and be involved in as many steps as you can along the way. Once the work is unpacked and showcased in its next location, you’ll be satisfied and glad you followed these steps.

James O’Brien’s work can be found at Mashable,, and elsewhere. He writes about media, finance, business and travel.

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