Importing antiques from Europe is not a difficult thing to understand or do provided that you have sufficient cash or credit.
There are two companies or persons you will deal with when importing, your shipper, and customs broker. Some shippers also have a customs brokerage service, so you may only do business with one company.
Your shipper will not only transport the items that you purchase from the merchant, they will pay the merchant from money you have placed in account with them, they will load the container packing each item carefully, work with the freight company that will transport the container from port to port, and also deal with the customs agents from the country of origin regarding the contents.
The customs broker takes care of the paperwork stateside. They are the ones that will declare the contents of the container to the US Customs officials and release the container to be shipped from the port to you. Ask your shipping company if the cost of shipping includes the cost of your customs broker.
For a full container, the procedure is greatly simplified than a partial container, or LTL (less than a full load). When a container is shipped, it is sealed in the country of origin, and will only be opened by the entity that is authorized to break the seal upon its arrival. It is possible that the US Customs official may want to open and inspect. But remember, that means unloading, which can be disastrous for antiques that have been carefully loaded. So it is to your best interest for that container to remain closed until you open the seal! Also, stands to reason that the more pieces or goods you have packed in a container, the less you will pay for shipping per piece.
The customs agent of the country of origin is present when the container is sealed, and things are done right, will be opened only by you, at the final destination. If you share a container with someone else, it greatly complicates the whole ordeal, both in cost, in logistics, insurance, and as far as US customs is concerned. If you are shipping LTL check with your shipper and customs broker to find out what additional hoops you may have to jump through. Be prepared to pay more for shipping. Insurance companies are very leery of LTL loads, because it requires more handling, and many things can happen to goods before they are delivered to you. When you negotiate the price of the shipping, be sure to specify what it includes: is it FOB or door to door? FOB means the goods are shipped to the port of destination and includes unloading costs.
When the container arrives at the port of entry, a dray carrier transports the container from the port to your door. This company is different from the freight company that brought the container to the port. A dray carrier is different from a trucking company, because they are going to have the container loaded on a flatbed, and deliver it to the door. When the container arrives, unless you have arranged otherwise, you have a few hours to unload the container so the dray carrier can return with the empty container. Sometimes containers can be unloaded and emptied at a later date. All of this needs to be arranged ahead of time. You must clarify with your shipper ahead of time if the dray company (port to door) is included in shipping or if it is additional. Most of the time it is not included.
Before you purchase goods, you will deposit an amount of US dollars in an account with your shipper. This money will be converted to the currency of the country or countries you will be visiting for your purchases. Your shipper will give you a purchase book. This is in triplicate: a copy for the merchant, a copy for the shipper, and a copy for you. When you purchase goods, all you will do is nod your head, and fill out the purchase order. The shipper will pay the merchant when they come to pick up the goods. Then the goods are transported to a warehouse where they will be inspected before they are loaded into the container.
Shopping for goods is where the fun is. With your list of sources, let them know that you intend to fill a container, and you want wholesale prices. Now much of this is up to you as negotiator, what you can purchase goods for, and what you can sell goods for. If a particular item costs 1,000 euros, automatically it actually costs 40% more or $1,400.00, depending on the exchange rate, PLUS SHIPPING. Shipping can cost 15-25%. Let's figure 20%. You purchase an item for 1,000 euros, when you unload that item; your cost is $1400.00 plus $280.00 shipping, or $1,680.00. What can you sell it for? Some importers will not buy it if they cannot triple their money. In this economy, it is possible that tripling is a bit too optimistic. If you determine the item is too expensive, tell the merchant that they needs to sharpen the pencil! Bulk buying talks. If you're there to drop $15,000 - $20,000 or more into his shop, you have some clout. Don't be afraid to cut to the bone. Otherwise, you're cutting yourself short.
Once you nod your head, all you do from there is take the little sales book the shipper gave you, and make out a bill of sale. Then take stickers, tag every item. EVERY item. If it has a shelf that comes out, TAG IT. Every table leaf, everything. Don't be stingy with tags! Itemize every part of the piece that you can. Be sure to get the merchant to write down the circa of the piece and certificate of authenticity or declaration. Antiques with proper documentation are duty free.
Be careful of items that are additionally fragile. Marble must be crated and shipped on its side, so that costs a lot to handle. I made the mistake of getting a double bowed china cabinet. I loved it, and got it really cheap (300e). It arrived intact, but I realized it cost the shipper a lot to wrap it adequately. And in retrospect, had the glass been shattered, the piece would have been worthless. So my advice is to be careful of purchases like that.
After you are through with your purchases, be sure the shipping company have their copies of the purchase slips, and that you have adequate credit to cover purchases. If not, you will have to wire more money. Work with your shipper on what will go into making up the shipping manifest. This will make your customs broker's job a lot easier, and it will fly through US Customs quicker.
When you return to the states, be sure that your shipper has faxed a copy of the shipping manifest to your customs broker. The manifest must have the cost you paid for the item, the country of origin, and year it was made.
When your container arrives, have a camera ready. Be prepared to take photos of anything that may be amiss. Most important is to make sure that the seal is intact. If it isn't, you may not want to take possession of the container. Be sure that the number on the seal matches the one on the bill of lading. Once you take possession, it is your baby. So make sure that seal hasn't been tampered with.
Also, be prepared to take photos of anything that is broken inside the container. Confirm it with the dray carrier, specify on the bill of lading that you will sign when you have finished unloading.