Outside the Box
Convelio co-founder Edouard Gouin on shaking up the art world shipping industry
Convelio is shaking things up in the traditionally expensive, often antiquated art world shipping industry. In its first three years, the startup has quickly become the go-to logistics provider for some of the world’s leading galleries, auction houses, creatives, and collectors.
They’ve done so by approaching the industry with fresh eyes, making waves by asking great questions, such as: Why—in the age of e-commerce—would anyone still pay 50% of an artwork price to have it shipped? And who can wait 48 hours to get a shipping quote?
Seeing themselves as “a tech company operating in the art world,” Convelio’s energetic, international team posits that transparency, instant quotes, and environmental responsibility—a particularly important, difficult goal for a shipping provider—are key components of 21st-century art logistics. And with offices in London, Paris, and New York—along with $10 million in funding announced earlier this year—it’s clear they’re a start-up that’s just getting started.
We sat down with co-founder Edouard Gouin to discuss the company’s unique approach, as well as the challenges encountered—and solutions found—when shipping against the backdrop of a global crisis.
Tell us a bit about the original inspiration behind Convelio.
My business partner, Clément Ouizille, and I came to the art world from the e-commerce industry. We noticed quickly that the transport of fine art and high-end design was riddled with inefficiencies. Art market players were regularly confronted with very few, localized options; long waiting times for quotes; high and opaque pricing; and an antiquated approach to customer service. It just didn’t seem right for this to be the case in our fast-paced, digital world. We decided to take matters into our own hands when it became clear that the lack of efficient shipping solutions was hindering the growth of the market. And so, in 2017, Convelio was established.
The brand positions itself as a shipping company for the 21st century. What separates the Convelio approach from others in the industry?
Convelio is a tech company operating in the art shipping industry. This makes us totally unique. We have developed a suite of tools to support the digitalization of the art world, starting with the launch of the first-ever online platform where you can instantly book art shipments. This year we also launched our integration tools, an API and widget, allowing art companies to offer Convelio shipping through their own websites. Rolling this out with our clients has really made us excited about the impact it will have on the industry.
How are you making shipments more affordable and efficient?
Our proprietary algorithm is the ace up Convelio’s sleeve, the not-so-secret secret to our efficiency and affordability. It is capable of optimizing costs by assessing millions of possibilities and crossing dozens of variables (including volumetric weight, geographic areas, commercial value, transport routes, and customs management) required for the instant calculation of quotes, all whilst maintaining the level of quality expected in the art, antiques, and design worlds.
Also, our model is based on a decomposed value chain. We use specialized providers at each step and we have a direct relationship with them. By removing intermediaries—and eliminating several layers of broker fees—we manage to generate important savings that we pass on to our 3,000-strong client base!
Transporting extraordinary art and design objects is a sort of art in itself. What is the Convelio approach to working with such valuable items?
Shipping art and design works is a complex business, but for us the object always comes first. Initially the challenge was that each piece had to be assessed individually. We worked hard to build an algorithm and establish a much needed partners network that’s able to cater to a wide range of specificities.
We continue to face new operational challenges, but thanks to our technology, our team can organize cranes, planes, cars, specialized packing, specifics for customs, and delicate installations in a matter of minutes. That’s how we have been able to organize the transport of a seven-ton sculpture from the UK to China, while handling a selection of high-value and extremely delicate 18th-century watercolors by John Constable and William Turner.
You’ve worked with some wonderful clients for the Design Miami/ fair this year. Are there any particularly special pieces you’ve been involved with transporting? Any pieces that required particular expertise on your end?
So many to choose from! We transported two dinosaur skeletons—a Camptosaurus and an Allosaurus, to be precise—for Jason Jacques Gallery; five of Saelia Aparicio’s anthropomorphic sculptures (made from birch plywood, stain dye, and chinese ink) for Gallery Fumi; a series of Hala Matta ceramic totems from House of Today; a set of rare American folk decorative pieces, including a circa 1860 Thomas Harrington stoneware for Olde Hope, and much more. Of course, our team on the ground was equipped with both the hardware and the technical expertise necessary to handle these pieces according to their exact specifications.
We also absolutely loved working with R & Company for the transport and installation of their podium, booth, and pop-up store. They are truly innovators and champions of collectible design. Personal favorites include the Haas Brothers’ mammoth carpet, Katie Stout’s Paper Pulp Shelf, and Karen Chekerdjian’s huge Platform B Coffee Table. This required six of our men to lift and place! Other more fragile items, made from blown glass and glazed ceramic, could easily break, and therefore required extra care—especially during placement, which had to be done to the millimeter!
Congratulations on the opening of your New York office. Tell us about your decision to physically expand beyond Europe and into the US.
This was a big year for our expansion in the US, which was in itself a natural next step as we have historically shipped a lot into the US from Europe. While the opening of the New York office was slightly held up by the pandemic, it is now fully operational. In October, we released the instant quoting tool for US shipments, and, since last Friday, we also offer instant shipping prices for exports from the US. Finally, we announced a major partnership with Design Miami/, which has been a wonderful way to close out 2020.
In the coming months we will continue to build on this expansion. Our plan is to have Convelio team members across the country—something that we, and our US clients, are all very excited about.
What lessons from this past year will you and the company hold tight to moving forward?
We have learned a lot from this unprecedented year, but I can highlight two key learnings. Firstly, that digital is the only way forward. Over the past few months we have seen changes in how art businesses are going online, specifically in relation to e-commerce (the ability to click through and buy a work online). The market has been moving in this direction for quite some time, but it has certainly been sped up by the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and shows that the future winners in the art markets are the ones that will commit to digital initiatives in the long-run.
This change speaks volumes about the impact of technology on the industry, and shows that now, more than ever, this is a buyers market. Price transparency and convenience is just a part of how galleries, dealers, and art fairs have to present themselves as a business operating in the 21st century. We believe e-commerce will normalize price transparency and encourage more people to start collecting art and design. The potential is exciting.
The second learning is that company culture is key. If you find the right people, you can tackle any challenge you face as an organization because each member will nurture and support the growth of others. In March, the (then) 40-strong Convelio team transitioned to a fully-remote model overnight, and we have since on-boarded 30 more team members flawlessly.
Where do you hope to see Convelio five or even ten years from now?
Our focus for the coming years is to become the leading design and fine-art freight forwarder, targeting every other vertical where we see similarities in terms of logistics complexities where special handling is required. As for geography, our US expansion is just starting, and it will be followed by an inroad into Asia. As for the rest, you’ll have to stay tuned…
Convelio is an official partner of Design Miami/ 2020