Some of you may have seen my Alembic Spyder bass in the sale section. I had listed it on Reverb, the Alembic forum and eventually on eBay as well, where it received a few enquiries, most of which were from outside the UK.
I didn't really want to ship it anywhere, firstly because of the value (I would have gone out of my way to a UK buyer personally to ensure no loss or damage) and secondly because the bass in its case weighed over 40lbs, not to mention that I didn't have anything large enough to put the whole thing in.
Mid-January, I received another message from someone who was interested in buying the bass....but he lived in the USA. After some messaging back and forth, temporarily suspending my worries about it getting lost and/or damaged, I agreed to look into it thinking that the cost of shipping this behemoth would most likely rule out any further interest from my prospective buyer. Here are the quotes from UPS:
I must admit, the quotes weren't as high as I thought they were going to be given the size, weight and value. I sent them over to the buyer, let's calls him B, and he was happy to pay if I was prepared to get it organised. I have to admit to sitting there thinking about it for a while, but I figured if it managed to arrive in this country in one piece, why not the other way around?
Now I've shipped a few basses in my time, internationally too, but this is the most expensive and heaviest one by far and over the furthest distance. I think my previous record was Kazakhstan (don't ask).
First I had to make a custom box. Fortunately my neighbours had bought a large piece of furniture which came wrapped in cardboard, so I saved the bin men a job and stashed it away in my garage. It took me and my son over an hour to pack the bass, make one cardboard box, wrap that in bubble wrap and then make another box to go around that. I think we did a pretty good job.
After B had decided which shipping method he wanted (UPS Express Saver) and paid for everything in full, I then booked the shipping online. I've never used UPS before, but I found their online system to be very intuitive - a heck of a lot easier than some basses I've sent via DHL etc. Even better was the fact that the earliest collection date was the day after I booked it. Very efficient. It turns out that up to this point i.e. UPS taking the not inconsiderable sum of several hundred pounds from us, this was by far the easiest and trouble free part of the story.
My collection slot was between 12 midday and 5pm on Thursday 3rd February.
We live in a close. It's easy enough to get into. Tesco and Sainsbury's seem to have no bother with home deliveries. About 10am on the Thursday I happened to see a UPS van at the end on the close. It turned in, turned around and left again without coming anywhere near the house. Odd thinks I, but you can guess what is coming. It gets to 5 pm and I've been in all day. No-one has come near the house at all. It gets to 5.15 (see what I did there?) and I decide to ring UPS.
Getting through to UPS isn't the easiest thing I've ever done. Ringing the main number doesn't give an option to speak with a human. You have to wait to get through a whole cycle of the options and then say 'Customer Service Representative' and it attempts to connect you. I spoke with someone who said the driver called and there was no reply at the address. Unable to contain my disbelief, I let a 'well that's bo11ocks' slip out before I knew I had said it. The female American voice didn't seem to register what I had said, but got the gist that I wasn't happy and arranged for the local UPS depot to ring me back. I put the phone down thinking I'll be ringing them back sometime tomorrow, when much to my surprise my mobile rang about half an hour later - and it was UPS!
I explained that I had been in all day and that the lady I had spoke to initially said the driver called with no reply. This second lady couldn't apologise more if she tried. She said 'I don't know why he didn't get to you, but I can see he didn't' (presumably though tracking). I'm not sure why the first person I spoke to couldn't see that, but never mind. She arranged for a driver who was just ending his shift to divert to me on his way back from Southend to make the collection. I thank her and we end the call. A UPS driver, a very nice man, calls 30 minutes later and collects the bass. I message B to say it's on it's way. B is happy.
The following morning my mobile rings. The conversation starts thusly:
Man: You booked a shipping through UPS
Me: Sorry, who is this?
Man: UPS Exports Dept. You booked a shipment to err.....Dallas
Man: What's it made of?
Me: Wood and strings mainly
Man: Is this as a business or a one off?
Me: A one-off. I've never used UPS before
Man: Has it got any Rosewood in it?
Man: Oh, that should be OK then. As long as it hasn't got any Rosewood in it
Me: I can send you the full manufacturers spec which I just happen to have in front of me, along with the original build certificate from them if that helps?
I then read him the full spec of the bass including materials
Man: That would great
He gives me his e-mail address
Me: Is there anything else there we should be worried about?
Man: No. That sounds fine to me
The UPS system is set up to notify of any changes or updates to your shipment. It works well. I was informed it had been held prior to export and that UPS man had then cleared it and off it went.
The bass was scheduled to be delivered on Monday 7th February. I could see from tracking that it made it over the Atlantic. B can see this too as I signed him up for e-mail updates as well.
I continue to receive updates and I notice one that says 'your package has been held by a 'Government Agency' as there is no Harmonisation Code on the package invoice. I'm not surprised there isn't because firstly I wasn't asked for one and secondly I don't know what that is anyway.
I contact the UPS Export Man (I have his e-mail address and his mobile number so he can't ignore me) and ask him what is going on. UPS Export Man, who works for one of the largest international shipping organisations in the world, says he can't access any of the USA UPS systems or speak to the UPS people in the USA!! Well, one things for sure, I'm not ringing them from here! I explain about the missing code. He is no help.
Fortunately, B is switched on and gets on the phone to UPS over there. Eventually he manages to speak with someone who finds out the bass is being held in Kentucky - which is not close to Dallas - roughly 15 hours away. They require him to give his Social Security number for reasons that we've never got to the bottom of. Various phone calls, e-mails and enquiries are made by him. We look into the code and find a massive list online and agree one that fits electric guitar. They seem happy with this.
It then appears there is a problem because the bass has Mother of Pearl inlays in the fretboard. I receive an e-mail from the Fish & Wildlife Analyst at the UPS Brokerage Office asking for the following information:
"Please assist in providing a detailed invoice listing the scientific name (genus and species), source (wild, captive) and country of origin of the mother of pearl inlay included in this shipment."
My heart sinks. I didn't have any of the answers to these questions. Fortunately, I knew someone who did. Mica at Alembic.
I've had a few conversations with Mica in the past and she has always been super helpful. This time was no exception. She came back to me within 24 hours with the following:
"Hello! I see you have run into the Fish and Wildlife Department and form 3-177.
The mother of pearl we use is:
Field 16a (Genus Species): Pinctada Maxima
Field 16b (Common Name): Oyster
Field 18a (Description): SPR
Field 18b (Source): C
Field 20 (Origin): PH
This means the mother of pearl originated from a captive breeding program (pearl farm) in the Phillippines. SPR is the code for "shell product"
Hopefully this is enough information to clear up the issues you are experiencing. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.
I send this information off to UPS Brokerage and after another few calls by B, they seem to be happy.
We receive e-mail updates that the bass has been cleared. We then receive e-mails saying the bass is being held pending payment of import taxes.
Question: Does a bass that was made in the USA and is then exported become liable to duties if it comes back into the USA?
Actual Answer: No.
UPS Answer: Yes.
There was no getting around this. The charge had to be paid or they weren't going to deliver it. End of.
B got his credit card out and paid UPS over the phone having been advised that the correct answer is 'No' and that there is a process to challenge it and get the payment refunded.
Everyone seems to be happy again and we are back on track for delivery, although he tracking shows it as 'on the way' (not to be confused with 'out for delivery' which is the next step after 'on the way') with no delivery time/date shown.
B gets on the phone again. Tracking gets updated. By Friday the 11th, the shipment is now shown as 'out for delivery' by 7pm which is 1am Saturday in the UK. I'm not going to get any sleep until I know how this pans out, so I may as well stay up.
We get to 6.55pm Dallas time and B sends me a message saying the van has just pulled up - then nothing....
I then get this message:
"The UPS guy wouldn't give it to me because I paid the duties online, like I was supposed to. Tried to leave with the guitar. I grabbed at it and he then flew into a rage and thought I was trying to hit him. Had to write another check for $613 that I'm going to have to cancel. He said it doesn't matter if his little digital pad doesn't show it and then threw the box about just to be a Richard".
This tale does have a fairytale ending though. B opened the box and the bass was it had left me and he couldn't be happier.
Never say never again, but never again.