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Travel and You

There's an Art to Getting Through U.S. Customs

October 26, 1986|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but when it comes to what is considered a work of art travelers should know how U.S. Customs evaluates such items.

The distinctions are important as there is no duty imposed on items adjudged to be legitimate works of art. Otherwise, no matter what you may have been told or believed to be the case about your item, duty may be imposed. And in some cases, this duty may be rather high.

"A lot of people buy things overseas that are passed off as works of art, and then they discover upon return that we don't regard these items as duty-free," said Jan Franck, a senior customs import specialist. "The majority of complaints by travelers are about glass, ceramics and tapestries or wall hangings."

Is It Original?

The key criteria used by customs is whether the work is original in concept and created by a professional artist as opposed to a skilled craftsman. "One example that has come up often is Murano glass from Italy, which we consider to be done by craftsmen," Franck said. "We've had travelers who have paid as much as $3,000 for pieces of such glass, and thought they had works of art that were duty-free and then had to pay duty."

Anything mass-produced is obviously not a work of art. "The item doesn't have to be created by a famous artist, but it should be sold by a recognized gallery rather than a souvenir store," said Nicholas Alesso, a supervisory inspector for customs at LAX. "When you buy something in a souvenir shop, you're buying the work of an artisan. Vendors may sell these items as originals, and they may be original, but for our purposes they're not works of art."

A problem may arise when a famous artist's name is involved. "The Picasso bowls were a big item several years ago," Franck said. "But our interpretation was that Picasso only created the concept, but had nothing to do with the actual production of the bowls, so they were dutiable. The originality of the concept is a consideration, but it may not be enough to make the piece a work of art if the artist doesn't get involved with the actual creation process."

With sculptures, the original is considered a work of art as well as the first 10 castings. "But copies made after this point would be dutiable," Franck said.

In addition, Franck said that the words "limited edition" by an artist don't necessarily mean the item is a work of art. "Limited edition just means that they break the mold after a certain number of reproductions."

Another expression, "in the style of," also doesn't convey work of art status, Franck said. "Items with this label are not likely to be considered works of art either."

Inexpensive tapestries would generally not be considered works of art. But tapestries can be duty-free if they are expensive enough. The criteria: being hand-woven and valued at over $20 per square foot.

Signature by the creator is also not an indication that a piece is a work of art as many craftsmen sign their work.

As the duty placed on lithographs is based on weight (figure 6 cents a pound), being considered a work of art is less important. Pieces have to be printed by hand to be duty-free.

Free If by Hand

Drawings and sketches are free of duty if they are done entirely by hand. "But if mechanical means, such as a stencil, were used, duty would be imposed," Franck said.

Laser art pieces are not considered works of art, Alesso said.

Ceramics involve the same rule of being created by a professional artist. However, copies including figurines and statuettes made by some recognized factories (like Lladro in Spain and Hummel in West Germany) may be assessed duty at reduced rates. "Many travelers buy figurines that are subject to a reduced amount of duty, paying 3.2% instead of 15%," Franck said.

Woodcarvings are usually not considered works of art but are duty-free if they come from a country that is part of the Generalized System Preferences (which eliminates duty for some products from some developing countries).

The best procedure for travelers interested in purchasing ostensible works of art abroad is to obtain a history of the artist, including where the artist has had exhibitions. "Get some documentation of the artist's background, and keep it handy to show customs," Franck advised.

"See if you can get a statement regarding the artist and item with the receipt, and on the gallery's letterhead," Alesso recommended.

As a practical matter, Alesso said, customs may waive duty on your items--whether they are considered works of art or not--if the duty on your goods in the aggregate would come to $10 or less.

Another trend to be aware of, Franck said, is that "if items had a utilitarian purpose in the past, they weren't considered a work of art. But we've become more liberal on this score now and items can be both a work of art and functional."

If you plan to purchase any specific "works of art" abroad, it's a good idea to contact customs before you leave and get a reading on the chances of this kind of piece being considered a legitimate work of art or not in respect to paying duty on it. Call (213) 514-6030.

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