Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash
Shipping fine art is an art form itself and doesn't always go as planned. Here's what to do if your art is damaged while in transit.
You’ve idled patiently on the waitlist, negotiated the price, and — finally — closed the deal on a work of art by an artist you’ve long admired. So what happens when that artwork arrives on your doorstep, with a gaping hole in the crate?
Purchasing an artwork from a gallery is only the mid-way point of that piece. Having traveled from the artist’s studio to the gallery (or art fair) where it was installed, displayed and acquired, the piece now begins its journey to you, the buyer. No matter the quality of the shippers contracted to transport the piece, every art shipment is a gamble with fate and circumstance.
The scale of the work, its weight, fragility, the competence of the shipping company’s art handlers and drivers, the materials used in crating — as well as the traffic, road and weather conditions at play during transit — are all variables that can disrupt even the best-laid art transport plans.
Here’s what to do when arranging art logistics and the steps to take if your art arrives damaged.
Always insure the work while in transit and choose your carrier wisely
It’s recommended to discuss all shipping details prior to purchase, or, at the very least, at the time of sale. If you, the buyer, are paying for the shipping, make sure to get the details in writing from the gallery so that you have a paper trail.
Simply ask the gallerist or dealer to include a line on the invoice such as, “Work will be packed in a shadow box and crated for shipping.” That way, if the work then shows up in a flimsy cardboard box, you’ll have proof that the terms of sale were not properly implemented.
Another best practice is to always pay for “insurance-while-in-transit” through the shipping company itself, which they will apply to the bill and which is usually based on the value of the artwork. When the shipping company uses their own insurance policy to cover works in transit, they’re generally more inclined to treat the artwork as if it were their own.
It's recommended to choose your preferred carrier wisely. Laura Doyle, a fine art specialist with Chubb Insurance, told Artnet that, “When we’re advising clients on how to ship an item we always suggest that the truck has GPS, climate control, a security system, proper suspension, as well as two drivers. And then if possible, the truck should always take a direct non-stop route.” Ask the gallery to confirm these details, in writing, or get the shipping company itself to confirm them directly. Having a paper trail is always a best practice.
Finally, make sure that you are informed about any particulars that may affect delivery to your residence. If you live in an apartment building, for example, make sure the piece will fit in the elevator. Check with your building's management to confirm what types of paperwork the shippers will need to present to your building's superintendent, such as a certificate of insurance (COI) or a bill of lading (BOL). This will save a lot of headache upon delivery.
If a shipping company arrives at your home with a crate that has clearly been damaged while in transit, the most immediate action you can take is to refuse delivery. Doing so will put the impetus on the shipping company and the shipper (i.e. the gallery that arranged shipping) to figure out the next course of action and work swiftly to resolve it.
Accepting delivery of a damaged crate will, unfortunately, work against you in the long run, so do everything you can to be present during delivery so that you can inspect the crate/box/tube, etc. before accepting and signing off. If you are not able to be present and a crate with obvious damage is simply left on your doorstep, fret not, there are still actions you can take to protect your investment.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photograph everything, even if no damage is apparent
Documentation is utterly critical to proving that the damage to the work occurred prior to its arrival at your home. With the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and videos, it’s recommended to simply film the entire delivery process, including opening the crate, removing the artwork, and inspecting it for damage.
If damage is observed, take close-up photos of the compromised areas and include a reference for scale (like a measuring tape, pencil, or even just your finger). Some damage can be the simple result of human error, but that doesn’t mean that you should have to accept a less-than-pristine artwork, especially if the piece was in mint condition at the time of purchase.
Document and preserve the packing materials
Certain packing materials can actually do more harm than good, especially if they are improperly deployed. A painting that’s been bubble-wrapped with the bubbles facing in (and without an initial layer of plastic sheeting) will leave perforations on the surface of your painting. That is because the art was wrapped incorrectly, either by a gallery staffer, the artist, or by the shipping company itself.
This is why it’s so important to photograph the method of packing prior to unwrapping any artwork. Were the corners of the work properly protected? Often, when an artwork is not handled with care, the corners may crack or show signs of cracking or denting. This is especially true of mediums with fragile sides, think photographic prints on thin sheets of aluminum or works on paper.
Heavy frames are also prone to cracked corners during transit, so if you receive an artwork and the corners haven’t been reinforced with extra packing materials, pay close attention to those areas.
If the piece is framed with glass glazing, the glass surface should be protected with artist's/painter's tape (usually applied in an X or grid).
If the work is a painting with a thick impasto or otherwise raised or delicate surface, it should be packed in a "shadow box" or "travel frame" to ensure that the surface isn’t compromised.
Photographing the work while still wrapped will indemnify you from any blame, in the event that the shipper, gallery — or even the artist — attempts to skirt responsibility for a poorly-packaged piece of art. Even if everything looks fine from the outside, always take pictures of the piece before unwrapping it — as a “best practice insurance policy.”
Should the art arrive in perfect condition, it's still important to note how the work was packaged — so that it can be replicated if the artwork needs to be crated again for shipping or storage. These details should always be added to the artwork's condition report.
Condition reports may be required by insurance companies upon reporting a claim, so always ask the gallery or seller to provide one and then annotate any changes to the work's condition upon delivery and inspection. Artwork Archive allows collectors to keep all important condition reports and other insurance documents (invoices, etc.) organized, and in one place for easy reference.
To summarize: photograph everything, whether the work appears damaged or not, and keep your paperwork up-to-date.
Photo by Robinson Greig on Unsplash
Contact the gallery immediately
Reach out to the gallery and send all your documentation of the damage as soon as possible. Documentation includes the photographs you've taken of the damage and notes on where the damage occurred. You can include your own condition report — although the gallery should have provided one with the shipment. You can find condition report templates here, as well as a good overview on best practices.
Make sure to always keep copies of your artworks' condition reports, as they will be often asked for in the event of an insurance claim, or if you decide to resell the piece at a later date. A database like Artwork Archive enables collectors to keep their important files together with the artwork's data, as well as generate reports for insurance, resale, and appraisals.
The gallery’s insurance will typically only kick in if the artwork is completely destroyed, and the same goes for the shipper's insurance. Often, the gallery will first attempt to fix any damage, either by sending the work back to the artist for repairs, to back to the gallery itself, or to a local specialist — it’s really a case-by-case situation that will depend on many factors, from the amount of damage to the materials used.
If the artwork is so damaged that it is beyond repair, the artwork will need to be destroyed, and photographic evidence will need to be compiled to send to the appropriate insurance company. In this event, you should either get a full refund (including shipping costs) from the gallery directly, or you should get a new work (of the same value and comparable aesthetic) to replace your damaged piece.
Determine the best path forward
Ideally, the gallery should advise you on the best path forward regarding your damaged art. Some galleries, however, might not want the artist (or the owner of the piece, if it is a secondary market sale) to be made aware that said artwork was damaged. That is a red flag and should alert you that this gallery does not operate with full transparency with its artist roster and/or consignors.
It’s important to understand that restoring a damaged work of art will take time — try to be patient with the process. That being said, until you have either been refunded your money in full, or have a work of art in your possession that is in the same condition as it was when you initially purchased it, you are the one out-of-pocket.
You need to be kept informed as to all progress with timely communication. This communication should come either from the gallery or from the artist in the case of a direct sale. If you do not completely trust the other party, the best advice is to ask for a full refund immediately, so at least you get your money back while the issue is sorted out by the other side.
Otherwise, you might be waiting around for months while the artist creates a new replacement artwork, only to find — when it arrives — that it doesn’t quite live up to your expectations, or to the quality of the artwork that you initially acquired.
You get what you pay for
Galleries will often lament that art buyers always want the cheapest possible shipping option, even if it puts their newly acquired artwork at risk. FedEx is simply not a substitute for a professional art shipping company. In fact, they have a "limited declared value" on fine art shipments of only $1,000.
If you’re attempting to cut corners by using a standard carrier, rather than a shipping company that specializes in fine art logistics, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself when the work arrives in less-than-perfect condition. Still, the gallery or seller should assist in either replacing or restoring the damaged piece, so reach out to them immediately, and provide the proper paperwork and documentation (images, notes on damage, etc.) as outlined above.
Additional cost factors, such as shipping and insurance, should be factored into your budget when assessing potential artworks to collect. Cutting corners on these costs will often end up costing you more in the long run, so always keep the "true cost of your art collection" in mind when making any substantial art acquisition. The devil is in the details!