Clay Culture: Vanishing Pots

Shipping artwork is a necessity for artists who sell online or work with galleries and customers outside of their region. As this cautionary tale shows, it’s important to evaluate the cost of various carriers in comparison to their reliability, timeliness, and the likelihood they will pay an insurance claim for lost or damaged packages.

I know how to make two things out of clay that affect many people the same way—they reach for their wallets to pay me for them. “Why would you make anything else?” a friend asked. “Because I’m afraid of what doing so might turn me into,” I replied.

And so instead of producing only one kind of pottery with a ready market and high success rate, then firing it in an electric or gas kiln for relatively predictable results, I continue creating wood-fired work, which is extremely labor intensive, makes absolutely no economic sense, yields results that few people appreciate, challenges everything I have learned in the 42 years I’ve done it, and occasionally leaves me holding a piece that is irreproducibly beautiful and particularly gratifying. Such was the case last summer when I took two platters from the June firing in my anagama (1). Each had an intense blue/violet color highlighted by orange flashes from contact with five scallop shells that supported it during the 5-day firing that took about 8 cords of wood and 14 helpers. Coming from the kiln, the platters represented the best work I could make at this stage of my career, and were worth the 8 other similar pieces that had to be trashed—a measure of risk involved in the firing process.

A Shipping Black Hole

I sold one of the platters around Christmas time, and sent the other via the United States Postal Service (USPS) from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, to Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington, by Ground (trucking), on January 4th for an exhibition to which I’d been invited, insuring it for the same amount I received for its mate. At the same time, I sent, by air, a large porcelain bowl to the same address; it arrived in 3 days. My mistake was in not sending both by air, since the platter was “lost,” which may be another way to spell “stolen.” How USPS can manage to “lose” a box approximately 36×36×10 inches has become easier to understand as time passed, and all records available to me indicate it never left Pennsylvania after arriving at the facility in Warrendale, which one postal employee from a town other than Huntingdon described as “That black hole.”

1 Platter, 16 in. (41 cm) in width, wheel-thrown porcelain, wood fired.

I’d be able to treat every postal service employee in Huntingdon to dinner at Mimi’s if I’d received minimum wage for the hours I’ve spent since January following up with the Warrendale, Atlanta, and Seattle branches of USPS, as well as filing an insurance claim I’ve been assured by a business service representative at the Seattle District, will not be paid. I’m fully aware that USPS “does its best” (whatever that means) to locate “lost” parcels, and yet the most they offered is that “lost” parcels end up in Atlanta, where they are auctioned off. Can senders of “lost” parcels find out anything about such auctions—when they are held, and what will be sold? To those queries I received no answer.

As if to further test my trust in USPS, an even bigger box containing a large porcelain jar (2) worth twice the value of the platter was “lost” after being returned to me from Stanford University in California, where it had been on exhibition—this just 4 days after my platter apparently sank into the morass of the Warrendale Black Hole. The sender has currently filed a claim with USPS—a task involving letters asserting the value of a one-of-a-kind artwork from galleries handling my work—an understandable, but likely hopeless task, hopefully approached.

Continued Shipping Education

You can watch a 10 minute video on YouTube entitled, “How USPS Employees Can Sophisticatedly Steal Your Packages,” which details how a parcel of comic books en route from Florida to Toronto was opened and stuffed with the precise weight in pages from an instruction manual replacing the missing comic books.

As my education continues, here is what I’ve learned so far:

1. Fully 90+ days after sending my platter, I could still type in the tracking number of my package—9535215396289004158719—and get this message, dated January 8th, 4 days after my parcel arrived in Warrendale: “In transit, arriving late. Your package will arrive later than expected, but is still on its way. It is currently in transit to the next facility.” Your guess is as good as mine as to where the next facility might have been. USPS records indicated that in 4 days my box traveled 154 miles and vanished.

2. USPS must be a strong supporter of the Zen Buddhist principle of non-attachment. You have no ability to fake the parcel’s disappearance since it’s in their care. When you send anything of value via USPS Ground, you are pushing your parcel, along with billions of others, over a cliff, fraught with thieves and various black holes, as well as your intended recipient. Rejoice if all goes well, being mindful of Ecclesiastes 9:11, “. . . time and chance happeneth to them all.”

3. Although a postal worker at another facility told me that every package is photographed, both of my large boxes must have been camera-shy, or, if likenesses were created of them, they, too, apparently vanished.

4. The insured value of your parcel is plainly visible to all USPS handlers, including thieves who may selectively choose which pieces to divert from your destination to theirs. USPS does not comment on such eventualities, but if they lose a little sleep over thefts, customers in my boat might be entitled to some schadenfreude.

5. One option I never considered was not to insure the box at all, saving the $16.95 it cost, or to lie about its value and insure it for a pittance, so as not to attract miscreants. If I have learned two things, they are: A) the extreme risk of sending a one-of-a-kind piece of art through USPS Ground, and B) insuring the box at its actual value increased the odds of it being stolen.

2 Jar, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, wood fired. Photo: Schaller Gallery.

6. In my lengthy correspondence with Ms. Phillips—the business service representative in Seattle and the only individual who identified herself, showed genuine professional assistance, and confirmed for me that I wasn’t dealing with a faceless bureaucracy—there has been no hint of what may have happened to my platter, leading me to believe we are mutual partners in cluelessness about its fate. When we mail a parcel we should be aware that USPS assumes, at best, limited responsibility for its whereabouts. Is it asking too much for USPS to state clearly on their parcel receipts, in sanctioned legalese, that they could not be fully responsible for packages entrusted to them by their clientele? Praemonitus, praemunitus—“forewarned is forearmed.”

7. I personally will never send anything worth more than a Hershey’s Kiss via USPS Ground. (Their flat-rate boxes, however, are speedy and a good value.) If you intend to mail a package via USPS Ground containing anything of value beyond that of a pair of Goodwill sneakers, you have my best wishes for the blessings of all the world’s saints, imams, ministers, rabbis, priests, holy rollers, and bodhisattvas.

8. While FedEx and UPS may be more expensive, their follow-up procedures are far more secure. Being businesses, they are more fully accountable to their clientele than USPS. I now have an active FedEx account.

9. Attempting to follow a “lost” USPS parcel has led me nowhere except down Kafkaesque rabbit holes seemingly designed to promote tax-funded anxiety, institutional distrust, and this fruitless letter.

10. Correspondence with Dick Lehman revealed that in ten years of shipping via USPS, his “insurance” is to simply to take great care in packing and never insure parcels, thus thwarting pilferage within USPS. A high insurance value on parcels is an invitation to thievery. As the Pennsylvania Dutch say, “We get too soon old and too late smart.”

11. My complaints have in no way compromised my cheerful relations with the Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Post Office—they showed their usual professional expertise in sending my parcel to its doom.

12. I had a postcard printed with images of the lost pieces and will send one for the asking. That’s the extent to which I currently trust USPS.

Update

In early April I wrote a long letter detailing how the USPS had lost two of my best ceramic pieces—a large porcelain platter insured and sent March 4th to Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington, and a large porcelain jar being returned to me insured from Stanford University, Stanford, California, the same week.

This brief letter will skip the hand-wringing details, and say only that the platter arrived four months after it was sent and was immediately bought for its insured price. The week of June 15th I received a check from USPS for the jar’s insured value—no doubt assisted by 10 letters from galleries and professional appraisers vetting the value of my best work. What may have clinched the payback was a letter from the General Legal Council of Stanford University to USPS Claims.

My advice to anyone sending insured parcels via USPS is to keep meticulous records/receipts about the value/cost of the parcel’s contents. Be sure to put both the sender’s and recipient’s name and address inside the package. One-of-a-kind works of art are especially challenging for both the sender and USPS Claims; furthermore, the insured value of the parcel is visible to all USPS handlers, an unknown percentage of whom are thieves. Insuring a parcel ups its risk of pilferage.

Yesterday I received yet another letter from USPS Claims in St. Louis stating that my claim for the lost platter was being rejected for the third time. (Two months after it had been delivered four months late). So much for the state of internal communications within the Postal Service.

the author Jack Troy, teacher, potter, and writer, retired from Juniata College in 2006, where he taught for 39 years. He has taught more than 250 workshops for potters at colleges, universities, and art centers in the US and internationally. His career has taken him to 13 countries, and his work is in many private and public collections, including the Smithsonian Institution, Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), Auckland Museum of Art (New Zealand), and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art. To learn more, visit www.jacktroy.net.

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