Artist Needs Advice: “How Can I Transport Paintings Across the Canadian/US Border by Car?”

I have been emailing with a Canadian artist who needs to ship paintings to a gallery in the US. She lives on the border and is planning to drive the paintings across the border and then ship them to the gallery from a US shipper.

She’s wondering about paperwork necessary to get the artwork through customs. I’m looking for RedDot readers who have experience to share their insights. Please share your experience and advice in the comments below.

Thank you!

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17 Comments

  1. Hello Jason,
    I am also looking for advice on how to drive my paintings across the US border and approach Art Galleries in Montana. I know if I had a Gallery interested, they could send a list of paintings with their address for easy border access. Has anyone done this before?
    Thank you,
    Diane in Millarville, AB

  2. You shouldn’t have any issues because art produced by a Canadian artist is duty free under the current NAFTA agreement. A friend of mine used to take art across at Niagara Falls all the time. Shipping was a whole lot less in the US than in Canada.

    You may want to call the US Custom Information line just to verify at 1 (202) 325-8000

    Best of luck,

    Kenneth

  3. I have no experience with paintings, but with sculptures. Going south by car is easy if the client is doing the driving. With the artist doing the driving it’s much more difficult, whether it’s to deliver a piece to a client or to a gallery. Even to transport my own sculptures down and back for 3D scanning is a hassle, and I now use a broker (and pay the broker’s fees) to get things across. There is probably a loophole you could drive through, but I don’t know what it is.

  4. I live on the US side of the Canadian/US border on the Eastern end. To my knowledge, and granted, this may be limited, there is no paper work to simply cross the border. What I mean by that is simply, she will need to declare at Customs the value of the paintings she has in her possession and what she intends to do with them. Actually, if she goes online to Canadian Border Customs, she can get these answers.

    1. Great resource Gina. I used the info and advice on the CARFAC site and it worked well for me a few years ago.
      I got the Certificates of Origin just so paintings can come back to Canada duty free. I shipped my paintings to the ADDShow in NYC cause I live in Vancouver. Glad I shipped cause two artists could not get their work across the border by car .. no idea why.

  5. It used to be that you could be taxed if the painting was framed- not sure if this was the coming in or the going out. For the fastest answer contact a Broker. They are always up to date on current rules and will give you their charges. Alternately, call American Customs for the information needed to enter the US. Contact Canada Customs for the rules for re-entry. Rules can change at any time. The organization CARFAC would know- as indicated in another posting.

  6. Paintings cross free of duty but frames may not.
    What you need to be able to prove that the paintings were created in Canada when bringing the paintings back into Canada, or you may be charged a sales(?) tax. CARFAC has a form to fill out and will notarize this form. This form must be with the artwork on return to Canada. I also used a broker that cost about $50 just to make sure everything would go smoothly at the border, and it has.

    I have only taken canvas pieces, shadow boxed for protection, and have not had this (framing) questioned.

    Hope this helps

  7. I live very close to the Canadian side of the U.S. border. When driving to the U.S. a customs agent will ask you the purpose of your trip. If you say that you are bringing in paintings for sale, there is a tax that must be paid of about $13.00. You will need to enter, fill out any necessary documents and answer questions. This is a road improvement tax because you are using the road to make money on your work.

    It is exactly the same if you want to purchase art materials from the U.S. as a Canadian citizen. You will be asked the purpose of your trip, to which you will respond that you re picking up paints, etc. You will be asked if you are an artist, have ever sold a painting, have a website and then you will have to go in and pay the road improvement tax of about $13.00 U.S. The customs agent told me that the fine for not disclosing the truth is around $7,000 US.

    I don’t know what the situation is like if you are an American artist entering Canada.

  8. I took paintings from Ontario to New York City on 4 occassions.
    Each time, I had the gallery send me, on their letterhead, the works they were going to exhibit. This had their address, a contact person, etc.
    I had about 20 pieces for a solo show.
    Each was carefully boxed with a picture of the painting and dimensions attached to each box.
    I had a master list with thumbnails , dimensions and value for the paintings.
    3 times, everything was smooth sailing.
    The 4th time there was a shall-we-say “cranky” border security person who caused all kinds of delays. Eventually, because I had all the data I just outlined above, all was OK.
    It took a few hours.
    NAFTA or no NAFTA there’s no telling who or what you might meet at the border…. So just be VERY sure you are properly prepared and all will be fine.

  9. I’m a Canadian sculptor. I’ve sold works to US clients. Shipping by Fedex into the US is easy and affordable. Really, you just show up at the Fedex counter, and within 10 minutes your issues are solved.

    On the other hand, I did once drive my art into the US for a show. I recall having to pre-register as a motor carrier with Washington DC, and nominate a US agent, and retained a broker. You also have to cross at designated “commercial crossings”. Despite all of my careful preparation, it took me four hours to cross in each direction, and it seemed I was on the edge of being denied passage both times. The broker had advised me incorrectly……so, it is complicated. This is their area of business, and they don’t always know what an individual border agent is going to demand.

    If I was to advise your artist it would be to Fedex the works from Canada. Do not attempt to cross the border with your art. While you are at Canadian Fedex counter, have them print up the paperwork and stickers to send the works back to you to your Canadian domicile from the US, as this will ease their return journey greatly, and what is required of your US art-friend-gallery counterpart.

    1. See also Gaia’s article. I’m glad it worked out well for her.

      I feel I put in similar amounts of preparation, and my crossings did not go nearly as smoothly. Sometimes it is just the individual border agent you are dealing with, and / or the individual broker.

      I wish I’d had Gaia’s article back in the day….. though it may have convinced me of the folly of attempted crossing the border with my art. KELLEN

    2. If you are driving to Canada and back be advised that the US side will require more than your word that you own the work you may return with. Without paperwork from the US side showing you own it, duties will often follow.

      It’s been about ten years so it’s undoubtedly worse, but the rule of thumb is always have photographs, descriptions and “owner” signature on the paperwork. Stop at US side on the way over and register. They can provide forms for the return.

      Going over I had to provide a letter from the gallery in Canada. The Canadian side was concerned I was shipping in art to sell without a sponsor.

      Fedx and brokers are much easier but can be very expensive.

      If you have a very clear set of docs showing ownership, your relationship with a gallery or other venue and are clear when it starts and when it ends, it works better. Most border folks have no real idea how the art business works, so the easier it is for them to feel comfortable letting you pass the better off you’ll be.

  10. I’m an American and lived in Canada from 2005-12, becoming a dual citizen during that time. My experiences going back and forth with my paintings, and the advice given by authorities, was all over the map, and I would sum it up by emphasizing that the general rule — that at the border you are in a “no man’s land”, subject to the mood of the guards and not the laws you expect from the countries on either side — holds true with regard to an artist and their own paintings.

    Briefly, before I moved north, I called US Customs And Border Patrol to find out the protocol. I was told, “Your paintings are your possessions, we have no interest in them”.

    When entering Canada with them during the move, they had to be declared as my husband’s possessions, since he already was a citizen; I was a nobody. Otherwise I was bringing in saleable goods.

    The first time bringing paintings back to the US for a show, thinking of the advice above, I was stopped and had to go in and fill out a standard customs importing form, including value of each. They were classed as saleable goods. As long as the total was under $2,000 I only had to pay a $10.75 fee for the right to cross the border with my own paintings; not a lot of extra tax.

    Meanwhile, once I became a Canadian permanent resident, Canada wanted me to stop on the way out to let them inventory everything in order to make sure I was not bringing anything extra on the way back in, if I were bringing back any at all in the future.

    All that was a minimum 3 hours extra at the border every round trip, but I followed the regs.

    Then one time I got a seething US guard who confiscated my keys and passport and had the car torn apart while I sat inside under surveillance. When she was informed there was nothing else there besides the listed paintings, her head almost exploded and she screamed at me that she did not believe that “ANYONE would spend their time making things that they didn’t know if they could sell!!!” I glared back at her silently; she had to let me go.

    That was the last time I ever announced what I was doing. I went back and forth about once a month for 12 years. Most of the border guards on both sides are content to just be tax collectors and quickly going back to chatting with their colleagues. Only the occasional one watches too much TV. That was true for Canada as well as US.

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