Letter (or rather e-mails) from America

Back in March I received a lovely email from an even lovelier lady called Hilary.  Hilary explained that she would soon be moving from California to Florida and was keen to commission a piece of work from my Butterfly Series.  There was the inevitable to and fro with emails to work out exactly what form the commission would take and timescales.

After a short hiatus, during which time Hilary made her big house move, I completed a number of sizeable projects and a fun but rather intense 2-week exhibition, we re-established contact, by email, and Hilary gave the commission the green light.  I knew that she was 100% committed as she had already started to invest in furnishings to go with the yet to be started art work.  This level of commitment comes with a certain amount of additional pressure to get it exactly right and I gave it a lot of consideration. I always want the entire experience of a commission to be exciting and enjoyable … for both parties!

Hilary requested a vibrant piece with a central rising sun. Immediately the name came to me “Florida Sun Over An English Meadow”.  I had such a good feel for what Hilary was looking for that the piece came together beautifully.  When I was able to send photos of the completed piece, slightly ahead of time, Hilary was effusive in her praise and the warmth of this new found friendship was palpable even over an electronic medium as impersonal as e-mail.

"Florida Sun Over An English Meadow"

Hilary paid promptly as agreed, something that I am always appreciative of particularly when collectors have yet to receive their artwork. All that remained was to package up the piece with due care and send it overseas.  I was let down by the initial courier but managed to rebook with what seemed to be a more reliable one.  How wrong I was.

The courier was a large multinational with many years experience of handling high value goods for transatlantic shipment (what could go wrong?). As arranged, a smartly dressed young man, armed with his clipboard and scanner, collected the carefully pre-packaged piece as anticipated, at which point I bid farewell and, uncomfortably, lost control of the work.  I didn’t have it.  Hilary didn’t have it.  The courier had it. Then they lost it. They found it. They damaged it. They delivered it.

I had told Hilary that the shipment had been collected and when it was due to arrive assuming no hold up at customs. I continued to track the shipment – not able to relinquish total control until I knew it was safely at its destination. I realised that the courier was not progressing the delivery – not because they contacted me to say they required more information but because I was tracking it and the status was not changing. I made an urgent call, only to discover that the information they required was not a legal requirement (I had met those) but related to an internal, procedural rule which they had failed to communicate.  Sigh.  Following a rather irate phone call (me not them), thankfully the package was again on its way through UK customs and on a flight to the USA.

Once state-side I had hoped for a smooth passage.  Instead the package was again held up.  Given the accuracy of the paper work submitted this was another frustration for me and indeed for Hilary who, understandably was feeling nervous that her delivery was yet to arrive.  Thankfully, it was delivered according to the revised schedule after the short delay at UK customs. But to my horror, the reinforced packaging had  been damaged so badly that the artwork had been speared from one side all the way through.  Let that sink in. The piece of work I had been working on over weeks arrived with a hole in the middle of it. Cue two devastated women either side of the Atlantic.

Hilary immediately emailed me to say what had happened. She wrote in capitals. I opened her email just as I was relaxing into the Friday evening ignorant of the disastrous journey that had befallen this longed for artwork. I won’t sugar coat it. I cried. I really did.  I had a pitiful sob at how appallingly something so valued by me and by Hilary had been treated by people whose job it was to take care of it while we couldn’t. The blatant disregard for other people’s valuables enraged me.

Then the all important question … Hilary asked if it was insured. It was (*collective sigh of relief*).  But then followed the long-winded and utterly incompetent investigation to understand how and who damaged the piece. It was glaringly obvious that the damage happened in transit yet still we were subjected to a most ridiculous invesigation. Some time ago now, before I started shipping abroad, I had thought long and hard about packaging and what makes sense for various work (boxed or crated). Weighing up adequate protection and weight is vital as cost racks up quickly with transatlantic shipments. One thing I always do is take photos as I am packaging my artwork.  Thank goodness I did!

Hilary was absolutely amazing! She understood immediately that this disastrous journey was not in my control and that I needed her help to claim on the insurance. At the same time I was horribly conscious that she was without her precious commissioned piece.  I couldn’t say if it was repairable without seeing it but the piece was now in Florida and the courier company refused to ship it back to me (probably just as well!). Hilary took photos immediately and we shared copious update emails trying to get the courier to admit liability and pay damages.

Whatever it was that penetrated the external reinforced box also went through the internal corrugated wrapping (several layers thick), several layers of large bubble wrap, reinforced board and the painting and back board. The hole is in the centre of the white circle, an inch in diameter.

After weeks of chasing the courier for payment and eventually contacting the CEO’s office – escalation is really the only thing that seems to work with multinationals – the courier company admitted liability and paid out.  So here we were back at square 1.

Hilary was still very keen for me to reproduce the piece – with the understanding that with my style of work it would not be an exact copy.  It did however give her the opportunity to make a few alterations. I worked around the clock to get the second piece finished in time for Hilary’s father to see it on a flying visit. This time I named the piece “Sunburst” – it seemed to fit Hilary’s sunny disposition and it was vital that Hilary was left with a positive experience. As a thank you for Hilary’s tenacious assistance in contacting the couriers stateside and for the gross inconvenience to her, we agreed that I would gift 2 mini-originals.

"Sunburst" with additional yellows and orange flowers.

I used a much smaller, local courier specialising in art for the second shipment.  The cost is significantly more but the benefit of knowing that the work will arrive on time and in the condition in which it left me is priceless. They have become my go-to courier at home and abroad.

All that remained was the question of what to do with the original, now damaged, piece. Hilary suggested getting it restored, if possible, and found a local art restorer. He seemed to feel he could remedy the piece to as-good-as-new.  This saved any shipping back and Hilary was keen to keep the restored piece (reduced to reflect the restoration) for her new office.

Hilary found Art Restorer, Helmut Zitzwitz in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Helmut did a fabulous job!
"Florida Sun Over An English Meadow" in its forever home in Hilary's office.

It was so fortuitous that Hilary discovered my work and that we struck up such a positive and trusting relationship from the start despite all our communication being over e-mail.  It saw us through a tricky situation such that we were both happy with the final outcome. I would always strive to go the extra mile to make my collectors happy, and this situation put it to the test!

The moral of the story is that no matter how difficult a situation may seem, honest and open communication and hard work can make it all worthwhile.

Tracey Thornton is an international mixed-media artist
Originals, Prints & Products from www.traceythorntonartist.com  
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Tracey Thornton Artist

Tracey Thornton is a mum, wife, daughter, sister, aunty, Godmother, Fairy Godmother and friend. Oh and when she has time to be someone else, she is a represented artist and designer. Tracey also writes children's stories and blogs about anything and everything and occasionally something.

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