Know the Basics: Sea Freight

Our recent white paper highlighted the impact of art shipping on the environment and revealed that a switch from air to ocean/sea freight on a transatlantic shipment of an average-scale crate can lower carbon emissions by a factor of up to 40. A case study from the Gallery Climate Coalition also showed that moving a piece of art by ocean rather than air can reduce its impact on the climate by around 95%. While the environmental benefits are indisputable, there are many other factors to consider when deciding between air or ocean freight such as cost, safety, and transit time. Here, we’ve broken down the biggest differences between freight modes, as well as outlined the different ways you can ship via ocean freight.

Difference in cost

Though a number of factors contribute to the total cost of any shipment, sea freight is typically a lot less expensive than air freight. Unlike air freight, sea freight is calculated primarily by volume for small shipments, usually in cubic meters (CBM), and by container size (most commonly 20’ and 40’) for larger shipments. In general, sea freight is great for:

  • Heavy items that can significantly affect your chargeable weight on air
  • Large and/or oddly shaped objects that may be difficult to handle, load, or store on planes
  • Furniture and design objects
  • Art being transported for fairs and exhibitions, as well as very heavy art

There are three ways that you can ship via sea freight, which will also play into cost: LCL, Groupage, and FCL.

  1. LCL (Less than Container Load) simply means that your item is loaded onto a container with multiple consignor’s goods. The benefit of this service is that you split the cost of the shipping with multiple parties, particularly if you do not ship in bulk. The potential problems with this method is that your item is loaded by untrained cargo handlers into a container containing all sorts of commodities such as car parts, kitchenware, etc.
  2. Groupage (or Consolidated Groupage) is LCL, but your goods are loaded into a container by trained professionals and co-loaded with fine art, design, and other high-value items. As with LCL, you benefit from splitting the container cost with multiple parties, while lessening the risk of damage with freight LCL. The limitations of this service are that they are not frequent and are geographically limited. The regular sea groupage services are between Europe and the US, and only depart from London, Paris, and New York about once a month (if not less) as shippers wait for maximum volume before departing. This is the most common method when sending items to art fairs.
  3. FCL (Full Container Load) means that all goods in a container are owned by one party. Even if you don’t have a full container worth of goods, you still can do FCL. The overall costs are higher, as you are contracting out a whole sea container, but when shipping a large volume, or bulky items, the cost per item, or CBM, drops. The most common sizes are 20′ and 40′ and you can determine which is appropriate by the total volume you are shipping.

Now that we’ve established there are three types of ways you can ship goods via sea freight, let’s unpack the differences in safety and speed of delivery. 

Difference in safety

There’s a common misconception that shipping via sea freight is unsafe. Depending on the item, you can safely ship high-value items and mitigate potential risks. If shipping art via sea freight, you either want to ship via Groupage or FCL to ensure that it is handled by trained professionals and so it will be packed and handled with other art. If you are shipping furniture or a design item via sea freight, you’ll want to consider the value of the goods and the fragility, but Groupage or FCL is usually the safer choice.

Difference in speed

When comparing the two, air freight is significantly faster than sea freight. Moving goods by sea can take anywhere from 1-3 months to complete from the time of booking. Sea freight is a really great option if something is not time sensitive and you have lots of flexibility, or if you are able to plan ahead in advance. When shipping via sea, it’s important to be prepared, organized and communicative.

How to book sea freight with ARTA

If you are interested in booking sea freight, we can always provide a quote when requested via our Custom Request Form or through our API. We currently offer a monthly groupage option for fine art between NYC and London; this monthly scheduling means you will have guaranteed dates and potentially a shorter shipping time.

If you are interested in shipping via sea freight, please reach out to Our knowledgable team will be able to provide you with both sea and air freight options, as well as provide expert advice on each. 

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About ARTA

We provide end-to-end logistics solutions for merchants and marketplaces worldwide.

We’re continuously evolving our e-commerce infrastructure for the global collectibles industry through automated transaction, fulfillment, and post-purchase technology.

ARTA’s software provides instant shipping and handling quotes for any item type, regardless of size, material, or price point. Our API automates shipping and fulfillment for high-value items, providing a frictionless purchasing experience for our clients’ buyers.