Class Action Swells Hit Cruise Line Art Auctions

It’s long been recognized by savvy art marketers that vacation spots were ideal locations for galleries. Such a location offers what is most often needed to finalize a pricey art transaction, which is to have both decision makers in high-end household purchases available at the same time. What better place than a relaxed resort environment to lure buyers with leisure time to a closing room?

There’s nothing wrong with this idea, it does indeed make great business logic. When both parties are present and equally excited about an art piece, closing the deal is so much easier, especially when they have a enjoyable relaxed vibe going. If that logic prevails, it only makes sense then that cruise ships would provide an even better environment. The impact of cruise ship auction sales has steadily increased along with sales they generate…unfortunately not always with positive results.

Ordinarily, anything that can drive art sales would be considered a good thing. A front page story in  April 8, 2007 edition of the Arizona Republic casts a different light on art auction sales at sea. The article, “Buyers question practices of cruise ship art auctions”, provides insight on the tactics employed by Park West Gallery of Michigan. Park West is considered the largest of a number of art auction companies plying their wares aboard cruise ships. Park West is now the focus of a class action suit that could include up to one million people.

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Cruise ships were once the bastion of the privileged class. Not so these days, they offer one of the best vacation bargains anywhere. The demographics include many passengers who lack sophistication when it comes to investment quality art. How cruise lines compensate for their relatively low prices are the add on sales of liquor, fine wines, designer clothing and art to passengers. Again, nothing wrong with that concept. What is a problem is the growing awareness of the shady sales techniques used to get buyers to overpay for “collectible art.”

Here is portion of the Arizona Republic article titled The Fine Print

If Holloway had read the invoice on his purchase, he would have found a disclaimer: “No verbal agreements or representations (by Park West agents) shall be of any force or effect unless set forth in writing.”

If he had read the certificate of authenticity, he would have learned that it does not apply to guarantees about the work’s title, lot size, rarity, provenance or importance.

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And if he had inspected the appraisal, he would have seen that Park West “assumes no liability for claims that our appraisal is inaccurate.”

As Park West Gallery director Morris Shapiro put it, “No one can say they weren’t informed of the rules.”

While sales using this kind of slippery sales techniques might help enrich a few artists and publishers, it does damage to the art business as a whole. It makes the public skeptical about all art and art dealers. There are more than 50 items detailing problems with  Park West Gallery on The Rip Off Report.  One of them details how a buyer managed to cancel a sale, but still had to pay Florida sales tax and more than $800 as a restocking fee. Keep in mind, these sales are being made in international waters where U.S. jurisdiction does not apply.

The aptly titled The Art of Piracy is yet another newspaper article from the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. It gives a detailed look at how some buyers were bilked when purchasing art on cruise ships. Not surprisingly, the name Kristine Eubanks is mentioned in the article. A post on this blog last month pointed out how she and her husband, both convicted felons managed to sell more than $20 million in forged art. Here’s a interesting brief excerpt from the New Times article:

Alan Bamberger, a connoisseur who wrote a book called The Art of Buying Art, says he’s working on a new edition that will include a chapter addressing cruise line programs.

“It’s not how to buy art,” he says, then later uses a solid Anglo-Saxon term to describe the Frenchified selling techniques on the glorified barges:

“It’s bullshit.”

The whole cruise ship art sales scene has become so sullied, it’s amazing to me that it remains an onboard staple. By contrast, when warehouse retail giant Costco got a whiff of possible impropriety in regards to the provenance of some Picasso crayon drawings it was famously selling online, it pulled the art off its Web site and cancelled the road shows of the supplier who had been working with them for years. In that case, it was a dispute with a Picasso relative about the art which might very well have been resolved favorably for the supplier and Costco. Rather than mess with it Costco pulled the plug on limited edition art sales in its stores and Web site.

What is unsavory about this scenario is cruise ship passengers take an unspoken third-party implied endorsement when it comes to dealing with unscrupulous vendors who prey upon them, the unsuspecting. In other contexts, many people who end up paying thousands of dollars for expensive art would be far more careful and considerate. The cruise ship sales tactics casts a pall over the art industry as a whole. Still, for as long as art has been considered an investment vehicle there have those who would use the latest technology and the oldest tricks to sell overpriced art, or worse just plain fakes and forgeries. And there seems to be an unending supply of novices willing to be taken in by the sharpies who prey upon them.

If launching or sustaining a legitimate art print sales career weren’t already a difficult path to tread, reports like these do not help. The best anyone can do is be genuine, honest and forthright in dealings with collectors, galleries and suppliers and not worry over the ill will created art scroundrels. As with all purchases, art buyers on land or at sea should keep “caveat emptor” in mind.

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Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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