One of the major challenges of living overseas is keeping a gallery presence in my home country. It is important that my time spent outside of the US doesn't represent an extended gap in my show record. I do exhibit in China but in a less formal retail shop setting. Gallery shows are common here but the ceramics community as a whole is much less organized, or well publicized. To keep momentum I have continued to exhibit in the U.S. with three main galleries and a few invitational shows a year. Getting pots to a destination in an efficient low-cost manner has become as important as making the pots themselves. I have discovered four options for shipping from China to the US.
-Premium shipping by air- The most reliable way to ship pots is DHL or Fed Ex. They are shipped by air and arrive within a week. The downside is the expense. One relatively light 18 x18 in box that would cost around $30 to ship in the US costs around $800 to ship from China. From a business standpoint this is insane because it drives the cost of the pots up to an unmanageable level. (If there are 10 pots in the box then each pot costs $80 to ship. Add that to the cost of production and the price of each pot can easily triple.) I have unfortunately had to use this method when I didn't plan enough lead time to ship with the other methods.
-Small quantity standard shipping by boat- China's postal service is much cheaper than DHL but considerably slower. China Post goes by land and sea which can take up to two months to arrive. This extra two months is hard to calculate into an already busy studio schedule. In addition there are no guarantees it will arrive safely, or even make it out of China. Chinese customs officials are rumored to cherry pick anything that peaks their interest as it enters or exits the country. There are size restrictions but in comparison the same 18 x 18 box would cost between $80-$120.
Another factor is that counter agents have to visually inspect every piece that you ship. This means you have to pack it in the post office. Picture this... You've worked for months on a few signature pieces for that top notch gallery. You cart them to the post office with your bubble wrap in hand so that you can show them to the counter lady. After you receive the OK you squeeze into the corner of the office while you pack your work with ten interested Chinese watching what your are doing. China's crowd mentality easily picks up on anything out of the ordinary. I am grateful that my coworkers have allowed me to avoid this scene by handling the shipping for our gallery.
-Large quantity standard shipping by boat- This method seems to be the best option for shipping large amounts of work. For this method pots are packed in a crate that is then loaded onto a pallet. Shipping agents match your pallet to other companies unfilled containers. These larger containers are loaded onto massive ships that sail to major international seaports. Once in country the crate is taken out of the larger container and shipped by truck to your final destination. The crate arrives in four to six weeks. The cost is between $100-$200 per sq. meter depending on the destination country. It is best to work with a shipping agents for this method. They know the best ways to navigate the highly complicated customs procedures. The downfall of this is that you must fully declare the goods for tax purposes. Where as you can ship untaxed "gifts" by DHL you are shipping "goods" by crate. All tax laws apply which can significantly increase the overall cost of the shipment.
-Shipping by checked airline baggage- The final method is to pack pots in airline luggage. Naturally this is only an option if you are traveling to the same destination as your pots. In my travels this spring I took pots to New Zealand and the U.S. in my bags. I was grateful and surprised that all but one pot arrived safely. (The one that did break was my fault. A lid broke the gallery of a teapot when I didn't put enough bubble wrap between them.) There are very few additional costs to the price of the ticket unless you go over weight or over size. Each airline posts their requirements online. It is worth breaking out the home scale to make sure you avoid these expense overage fees.
Innovation in hard shell luggage has increased the safety and reliability of checking fragile items in airline luggage. I have two bags that are of a similar composition to the one pictured below. One is a Samsonite and the other a much cheaper Diplomat. After a few trips with both I think the Samsonite is worth the money. (Click here for Samsonite's site) If you frequently travel with pots the investment will pay for itself.
The key to the pots survival is strategic placement and packaging. I line the inside of the suitcase with four layers of bubble wrap. Each pot is wrapped in two or three layers of bubble wrap. I know when to stop adding bubble wrap when I can push on all sides and not feel the edge of the pot. Larger pots are laid in the case in an alternating criss cross pattern. Smaller pots are shoved into the gaps. Rolled up clothes can be wedged into any remain space. For the best packing the case should be full and zipped shut under compression. The danger of breaking pots is usually from internal shifting not external trauma. There are a few pictures below of a load I brought back to the U.S. on my last trip. I brought around twenty bowls, teapots, and cups.
In the last year I have shipped DHL and packed pots in luggage. I have a few shows this fall that I will try China Post and possibly ship a crate with a large amount of work. Ill post more feedback on these methods when I have more first hand experience.
Anyone else have international shipping experience? I would love to know the top secret method for teleporting work directly to gallery shelves.