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Art at Customs

Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder but when art is viewed by Customs, a strict evaluation is applied.

No duty is imposed on items considered legitimate works of art but the distinctions are critical for the traveler loaded down with creative purchases. Regardless of what you may have been told by the vendor who sold you the item, duty may still be imposed—and in some cases it can be quite high.

Customs uses key criteria to determine whether an item is original in concept and is by a professional artist rather than an artisan. Mass-produced objects are never classified as works of art. Items sold at souvenir shops are generally produced by artisans and duty applies even if they have been sold as originals.

Glass, ceramics, tapestries and wall paintings pose the greatest problems for travelers. The confusion increases when a famous artist’s name is involved. “Picasso” bowls were a big item some years ago, but Customs’ decreed that Picasso only created the concept and had nothing to do with the actual production of the bowls. Therefore duty was charged. The originality of the concept is taken into consideration but, usually, this is not enough to classify the piece as a work of art if the artist is not involved in the creation process.

With sculptures, the original is considered a work of art as well as the first 10 castings. Copies made after this cut-off are dutiable. Don’t be misled by the words “limited edition.” This doesn’t signify a work of art as far as Customs is concerned. Limited edition simply means the mold is broken after a certain number of reproductions. That number is determined by the owner of the mold. Another expression used at the point of sale is “in the style of.” While this may be true, the object will not be seen as art at customs.

Inexpensive tapestries are generally not considered works of art but pricier ones may be duty-free. They must be hand-woven and valued at over $215 per square foot.

Drawings and sketches are duty-free if created entirely by hand. Once mechanical means, like a stencil, are employed duty may be imposed. Duty on lithographs is based on weight, (around six cents a pound), so a rating as a work of art is less vital. Pieces also have to be printed by hand to be duty-free. Laser-art pieces are not considered works-of-art.

Woodcarvings, while usually not rated as works of art, may be duty-free if they originate from a nation that is part of the Generalized System Preferences (which skips duty for some products from some developing countries).

Ceramics too, must be created by a professional artist. However, duty on copies including figurines and statuettes made by some recognized factories (like Lladro in Spain and Hummel in Germany) may be assessed at reduced rates.

While a signature by its creator may seem significant, this alone doesn’t elevate the item to work-of-art status. Craftspeople sign their work, too.

The best bet for travelers hoping to purchase works of art abroad, is to visit recognized galleries. There they can obtain a history of the artist including exhibitions. Try to obtain a written statement regarding the artist and the item. A valid certificate of authenticity, or other type of documentation indicating originality is advisable and barring that, a receipt on a gallery’s letterhead can be all that’s needed.

As a practical matter, Customs may waive duty on items that fail the test as works of art when the amount involved is $10 or less. If you plan to purchase any specific “work of art” abroad, it’s a good idea to contact Customs before your departure. They can give you the exact guidelines for the item, making importation practically routine. The most convenient way to reach them is to the Customs Office at your nearest airport. You can also write to Customs for its brochures, (especially “Know Before You Go”), at US Customs Service, PO Box 7407, Washington DC 20044.

On the Internet (where there is a Customs site, but without a great deal of information), go to:

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