Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Piracy or Ignorance on the High Seas - Art Auctions

A few days ago I mentioned that Regent Seven Seas cruise line has removed the art auction discount from its Seven Seas Society past passenger program benefits. I do not know if it is coincidence (probably) or related, but there is a very interesting article today in the New York Times about cruise line, and more particularly Park West, art auctions. It can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/16/arts/design/16crui.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=arts.

The initial premise of the article is that one individual on a Regent cruise spent about $73,000 on art while on his cruise. When he returned home, he alleges he discovered the art work was worth less than $15,000 and the supposed authentic Dali signatures were, in fact, not authentic. Quoting The NY Times article, "Including the buyer’s premium, he had paid $24,265 for a 1964 “Clown” print by Picasso. He found that Sotheby’s had sold the exact same print (also numbered 132 of 200) in London for about $6,150 in 2004. In addition, he had paid $31,110 for a 1968 print, “Le Clown” by Picasso; Artprice.com, an online art database, showed it going for about $5,000. " Obviously there are two sides to the story and Park West vehemently denies the allegations. However, it was reported that immediately after the NY Times contacted Park West about the matter it provided the individual with a full refund.

Personally, I all too well understand the concept of getting caught up in cruise ship art auctions and have seen the loss of rational thought when prices are bid up or the 40% off the appraised value offers start flying towards the end of the cruise (like there is desperation to make a sale because you are leaving...but you forget there is another "you" boarding moments after your depart, creating a weekly faux urgency).

I know many people who are very happy with the art they purchased during their cruise. They are momentos of a wonderful time that actually do not wind up in a closet, but rather hang on your walls and cause you to think about that cruise. I know this because I, yes I, have purchased art on cruises. A Spiderman gel for $50 that made my son very happy for many years as it hung over his bed (and relief when it was taken down when it became "uncool") is now in a closet...and not something I ever looked at as an investment. A few prints that had the right size, subject matter and colors to fit in "that" spot, but never something that cost thousands of dollars.

I have even happily purchased a very small oil painting on my first Regent (actually Radisson) cruise on the wonderful Diamond for a very modest sum. It sits in my formal living room and, while I do not ever look at it as a financial investment, I do look at it as a reminder that the investment in travel and cruising with your family has in incredibly valuable return.

So, having gone from Park West may be the bad guy, to possibly implying Regent shouldn't condone such conduct, to they can be a bit of harmless fun and enjoyment, what is it that I really think? Well:

1. I think anyone that pays $5,000+ for a piece of art on a cruise ship has no one to blame but him/herself. If you want something that valuable, go to a true land-based art house, a real auction, use a professional expert, but do not - ever - rely upon the words of a commissioned salesperson in a setting where jurisdiction to bring a claim you may never be able to figure out. That does not mean there should be no recourse, but if you have earned enough money to be able to afford that $15,000 piece, you should be intelligent enough to proceed with caution.

2. I think the cruise lines need to take some responsibility in curbing any sharp practices. Gold by the inch, fabulous watches for $10, clearance on logo-wear, etc. are one thing, but when the pitch is for $5,000+ and the cruise line profits from the grotesquely overstated value or misrepresented quality they simply cannot turn a blind-eye. And I am not talking about addressing only those that complain, but rather policing the auctioneers/salesman so that every one of their passengers is treated fairly. (And yes, overpaying for things is part of what happens on vacation, so let's not get carried away with the concept.)

Remember, the passengers rely upon the cruise lines to provide them with an enjoyable and safe experience. To me there is no difference between stealing someone's wallet and selling them bogus art. So just as you would not hand a thief your wallet, don't hand them your credit card. And cruise lines: Do better at keeping the thieves off of your ships!