New Shipping Requirements in Effect: The Art World Reacts

February 2011Art & Advocacy, Volume 8

Priceless art just got a little bit pricier. As a result of recent terrorist scares involving FedEx and UPS shipments, art shippers have a new cause for concern. As if properly packaging high-end art were not nerve-wracking enough, art shippers now have to contend with the possibility that airport employees, who are not trained in handling art, will open their carefully constructed crates, exposing priceless artwork, such as Picassos and Calders, to new risks.

On October 29, 2010, two cargo packages containing powerful explosives were intercepted in Britain and Dubai after a tip from Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service set off an international terrorism alert. The packages, which were addressed to synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, were shipped from Yemen and had passed through four countries on at least four different airplanes before being identified.1

In response, the Obama administration moved to tighten air cargo security, demanding new inspections of “high risk” shipments headed to the U.S. on all-cargo flights. Officials did not define what would make a package high risk, although focus is likely to be on deliveries from countries where terrorists are known to operate and deliveries from an individual, unknown shipper.2 The administration is also considering imposing increased notice requirements about the contents of shipments on cargo flights bound for the U.S. so that officials can request additional screening before a flight takes off. The current notice requirement is four hours before the flight is scheduled to leave.3

Although the new screening requirements are expected to bolster an area “long viewed by experts as a weak link in post-9/11 security procedures,”4 the new requirements raise serious concerns for art shippers responsible for safeguarding art. The main concern is the possibility that airline employees will open carefully packaged crates and search them “the way checked baggage is sometimes searched now.”5

As it is, cargo shipments carried on commercial passenger airplanes are subject to rigorous screening requirements recently imposed by the Transportation Security Administration. The screening requirements, which were put into effect on August 1, 2010, mandate that all items shipped as cargo on passenger airplanes must be screened, affecting roughly 20 percent of the total freight carried by air into and out of the U.S.6

As a result of these requirements, as well as the possibility of increased screening on non-passenger airplanes, many large museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery in Washington, have enrolled in a federal program that allows them to create secure screening facilities within their buildings. The program, called Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), is a voluntary government-business initiative designed to strengthen the international supply chain and improve U.S. border security. In exchange for a more expeditious supply chain, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) asks businesses to ensure the integrity of their security practices by verifying the security guidelines of their business partners within the supply chain. Enrolling in C-TPAT provides a number of benefits, including reduced border delay times, priority processing for CBP inspections, and potential eligibility for the CBP Importer Self-Assessment program, among others.7

While C-TPAT provides a useful option for larger museums, which typically plan exhibitions years in advance and have sufficient time to avoid shipping via passenger planes, the program is less effective for galleries and private dealers. Unlike large museums, small museums and galleries often put shows together more quickly, meaning that “a piece in New York needs to be in Zurich or Beijing the next day.”8 Furthermore, even large galleries are unlikely to set up their own secure facilities pursuant to C-TPAT because of space and resource requirements. As a result, smaller museums and galleries will likely rely on art-shipping companies that are certified screeners, adding time and potentially major costs to shipping art.

The new requirements also complicate the frequent involvement of anonymous parties in art transactions. For example, where an owner of artwork wants to remain unknown, and his dealer finds an overseas buyer, it will be nearly impossible for the owner to remain anonymous if he is the party in possession of the artwork at the time of the shipment. Currently, the government has instructed airlines to ensure that cargo comes only from known shippers, which includes those who have filled out paperwork or have been identified in other legitimate ways.9 A shipment from an anonymous third party is considered an “unknown shipment,” and that is subject to special handling and potential delays. John McCollum, the international shipping manager for Stebich Ridder International, an art-shipping company certified by the federal government to screen cargo, explains: “You’re a dealer in San Francisco and you’re trying to sell a piece that happens to be in a gallery in New York, and the buyer is in Paris, but the guy in New York, for all kinds of reasons, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s the one selling the piece... It’s going to be a mess.”10 As it stands, it will be nearly impossible for anonymous parties to remain anonymous without added cost and time.

Despite these obstacles, enrolling in the C-TPAT program, or using art-shipping companies that have done so, is an attractive option for those dealing in fine art. Pursuant to the C-TPAT initiative, such institutions and art-shipping companies inspect, crate, and mark artwork with special seals, locks, and tape themselves, thus significantly minimizing the chances of the artwork being rescreened by airline personnel. C-TPAT is available not only for air carriers, but also for all U.S. common carriers involved in importing goods into the U.S., including ocean vessels, railroads and trucks. This, at least, is some good news in a world where shipping requirements have become all the more stringent.


1  Cargo Bomb Plot (2010), N.Y. Times, November 2, 2010, available at http://topics. nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/c/cargo_bomb_plot_2010/index. html?scp=4&sq=cargo%20terror&st=cse.

2  Eric Lipton, U.S. Sets New Rules for Packages on Cargo Planes, N.Y. Times, November 8, 2010.

3  Barry Meier and Eric Lipton, In Air Cargo Business, It’s Speed vs. Screening, Creating a Weak Link in Security, N.Y. Times, November 1, 2010.

4  Id.

5  Randy Kennedy, New Rule on Cargo is Shaking Art World, N.Y. Times, February 13, 2010.

6  Art World Worried About New Rule on Air Cargo, Homeland Security Newswire, February 16, 2010, available at http://homelandsecuritynewswire.com/art-world-worried-about-new-rule-air-cargo.

7  See C-TPAT Overview, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/trade/cargo_security/ctpat/what_ctpat/ctpat_overview.xml.

8  Randy Kennedy, New Rule on Cargo is Shaking Art World, N.Y. Times, February 13, 2010.

9  Id.

10  Id.

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