Over the past two decades, art auctions on cruise ships have become big business.
The idea of sipping free champagne while taking in art work that some auctioneers tout as museum quality attracts thousands of passengers year after year.
But after a string of art class action lawsuits where art sellers were charged with inflating prices or trying to pass off fake works, auctions started to get controversial. I’ve followed scandals, lawsuits, convictions and stories by cruisers who feel their life savings were chiseled away.
There has been far less negativity in the press lately, but buying art aboard ship –or even on shore -- continues to come with an element of risk.
So, do cruise ship art auctions offer real value or just expensive souvenirs?
Understanding the art at cruise ship art auctions
Cruise ship art auctions have the pretense of culture, but rarely are any of these pieces sold aboard ships ever on par with Christie’s or Sotheby’s --where a single painting can fetch millions. In fact, cruise auctions rarely sell original paintings at all. They sell “limited edition” prints – a secondary art market. Now, this does not mean the art sold on cruise ships is worthless, it just means it is worth less.
Still, by definition each piece is technically an original work of art because the named artist was involved in the process of making these prints. Each print from the “limited edition” should have two numbers hand-written on the back. For example, it would include a marking like this: 25/500, where the first number represents the unique number of that piece in the sequence and the second number shows the edition size or the total number of copies made. The most valuable limited edition prints are also hand signed by the artist.
Who runs these auctions?
The main purveyor on cruise ships is Park West Gallery of Michigan. Currently, the company website says it services 70 different cruise ships worldwide, including: Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, Regent and Royal Caribbean. However, some of these lines have dropped Park West in the past, or have limited them to certain ships or regions. Princess has never used Park West, and some Royal Caribbean ships have dedicated galleries to Britto and other contemporary artists instead.
These auctions started small until the auctioneers discovered something surprisingly lucrative: auction-fever. Passengers were getting so excited they’d forget to do their due diligence and research the true value of the piece. This has led some who’ve bought pieces to experience buyer’s remorse. Naturally, it is hard to do thorough research when you are on a cruise ship with limited access to the Internet, and that is one reason people get into trouble.
What exactly do they auction off?
These auctions mostly feature prints by contemporary artists, such as Tarkay, Britto and Yaacov Agam. The pieces are created with a process called Giclée, French for fine spray. This requires a very expensive ink-jet printer dropping miniscule dots of very fine ink. One Giclée print can cost $50 to manufacture, and the quality is amazing. One of the most recognizable artists is Peter Max, and his pieces usually fetch a good price on any ship. Max’s affiliation with cruises even led to a commission by Norwegian Cruise Line to create the artwork for the hull of the line’s newest ship.
Peter Max often adds considerable cachet to his cruise ship pieces by not only signing them, but adding a unique dab of paint to each prints making it slightly different. But you need to know that Peter Max has made thousands of these pieces, so even though yours (which can cost several thousand dollars) is technically unique, it isn’t exactly rare. Check the online market for Peter Max before you cruise to see what I mean.
But cruise ships also sell other kinds of art prints, which can be very expensive and also very risky in terms of value. Older classic artists like Escher, Chagall, Picasso and Dali also created prints, but they used older and far less reliable processes such as lithography, invented in 1796. These prints have caused the most controversy with cruise ship art auctions.
Knowing what you are buying is without a doubt the most important consideration. You can buy a beautiful Giclée by a contemporary artist for a reasonable amount of money, but when it comes to older prints by famous artists I highly suggest you resist auction-fever.
Art as an investment?
The provable value of a piece of art is called its provenance. Every valuable piece of art has a verifiable story and without true provenance there is only opinion. In other words, one man’s treasure is another man’s piece of paper. Provenance should be infallible like DNA, either it matches or it doesn't. Never take the advice of an auctioneer or any art dealer where provenance is concerned. Go to an independent appraiser. Again, this is nearly impossible on a cruise ship.
With lithographs provenance is very hard to prove and for certain artists the topic can fill books. Some are hand-signed and some are not. If a lithograph has a signature “in the block” (included as part of the print) it could have been intentional, or it could be a fake. As Salvador Dali was dying a rumor says he signed tens of thousands of blank pieces of paper, receiving a dollar for each one. This is just one reason why Dali works are among the hardest to verify provenance.
With a Giclée the quality is usually obvious. The main concern should be whether it is numbered and signed, and to know how many editions were made. There is no greater value in a lower number due to the high quality reproduction process. But the potential for fakery is high since it is possible to make millions of Giclée prints where each one will look as good as the first.
Park West actually has relationships with many of the contemporary artists it represents, so you might meet them on the ships. This is an aid to establishing provenance (an artist should know the history of his own work), but several years ago a different cruise ship art purveyor went to prison after making and selling Giclée prints that were never authorized by the original artists.
Attending a cruise art auction
Cruise art auctions start with hundreds of framed prints appearing from nowhere. They lean on chairs, tables and couches, and a few special pieces will be placed on easels near the podium where a tuxedo-clad auctioneer stands, shuffling papers, making check marks and whispering to his people. Other gallery employees will circle the room to ask people to take a seat, soon followed by a waiter offering tall, bubbling glasses of complimentary champagne.
You are handed a paddle with your unique bidding number and an extensive form you must complete right away. The first piece appears, and after a brief description the mesmerizing rhythmic patter of the auctioneer begins. As he leads the price higher and higher the paddled hands of audience members gesticulate like Micky Mantle tracking a ground ball. Suddenly the hammer strikes and he announces the number of the winner.
Another piece hits the auction easel immediately. The auctioneer must keep the adrenaline flowing. In some cases I have seen people bid on every single painting, but I have also seen audiences filled with nothing but watchers, always prompting the auctioneer to say, “Never in my life have I seen so many missed bargains.”
What’s in the contract?
The contract, which is also a credit application, explains the rules of the auction and stipulates that you agree to everything by signing it. It also explains all of the added fees that can come with a winning bid.
The rules can vary, so I encourage you to read before you bid, but here are some of the possible hidden charges:
The hammer price and the buyer’s premium are two separate charges common to all art auctions. The latter alone usually amounts about 15 percent of the bid. When the piece arrives by courier expect to see added sales tax, shipping, handling and insurance charges. Every piece also comes with an appraisal from the gallery, which costs $25. You do not get the actual piece you bid on unless the auctioneer identifies it as a “carry-off” item. Remember, the gallery can own several hundred copies of each print, all of equal value, and although this is rarely mentioned during the auction, the contract says that they will send you one – at your expense. All together, surcharges can add about $100 - $200 to your bid price.
Most Park West appraisals are signed by the owner of the gallery – Albert Scaglione. This has been cited as a non-standard practice by other art sellers who only recognize independent appraisals. Your cruise ship art appraisal will reflect “insurance value,” generally the highest appraisal possible.
It also pays to remember that your bid does not include the frame – just the print inside, unless the auctioneer says differently. So, if you want it framed (they will ask you this after you buy the piece) that is another optional cost, which also adds to the shipping costs.
I have seen many funny things during art auctions, so I encourage you to watch without a paddle in your hand. One known oddity is conscripting passengers as shill bidders –where they bid with the intent to artificially increase its price or desirability --in exchange for a free print. This actually isn’t illegal, since the seller has the right to set the price. I have seen an auctioneer describe a piece as “unique and collectable,” and yet he has plenty to sell when extra people hit the hammer price. Another practice is called the “mystery piece,” where the item is shown only from the back, but he names a low bid and asks how many people would buy it at the price – sight unseen.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.