Cruise Ship Art Auction Controversy

| July 18, 2008

Art auctions on cruise ships have become controversial for a number of reasons - caveat emptor, buying art is risky and expensive.

CruiseMates has written about many aspects of cruising we love; the great service, ease of travel and the gourmet food, for example. But we have also written articles such as "If We Ran the Cruise Lines" where we address things we would do differently if given the chance. In that vein, we wrote we would eliminate, or at least change, cruise ship art auctions.

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article about cruise ship auctions. When something gets big enough for the NY Times, it is time for us to give it a second look as well. In fact, we had already started this article last week, but the Times gave us a reason to move it up.

It turns out we are not the only ones who have trouble swallowing everything the typical cruise ship art auction dishes out. A web site, fineartregistry.com is currently embroiled in a public fight with the company that has the right to provide the vast majority of cruise ship art auctions, Park West @ Sea, a division of Park West Gallery of Southfield Michigan.

How big is this business? Park West is privately held but the New York Times quotes owner Albert Scaglione as saying sales are about $300 to $400 million dollars per year - much of it from cruise ships. That is a LOT of money, but consider these auctions occur daily on about 90 different cruise ships. We have seen evidence that a ship can sell anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 per cruise.

I am not an art expert at all, and if I make mistakes in definitions in this article I can only say I have done my best and promise I will correct any errors immediately to the best of my ability. The contemporary art market is extremely complicated with many legal definitions. I contacted Park West to get reaction and possible clarification to what I write here. Informed they were unavailable, I told them my deadline date. I was given a number to fax in my contact information, which I did, but I did not hear back from them.

The main thing you have to realize is that these auctions are not for original paintings, which is what most laypeople think of as "art". With a few very rare exceptions they sell what are called "multiples". Some are lithographs, which although the process makes more than one piece, each is considered an original "work of art."

The newer ones are made with a inkjet printer process called giclee (gee-CLAY), still the term "multiples" is essential, because it defines the parameters of a run of prints. The run should be of a limited number and each print should have a unique number. The edition number looks like this 138/200, which means print number 138 out of 200. Under U.S. Copyright Law 101, to be considered limited it must be a "work of visual art" and "signed and numbered by the author."

Anything less is considered a "reproduction" which is essentially a poster. It may be of a limited run, which makes it more valuable, but not a legal "work of art."

(note: the paragraphs above were re-written after comments on legal art definitions were received. See more information at the bottom of the page*)

Ultimately what you are buying is a limited edition "work of art" of which there are several similar editions (which to me seems more like a reproduction, but is not so legally) with an autograph. How much should this be worth to you? Depending on the artist, very much or very little. Salvador Dali, for example, is an extremely famous artist, but he hand-signed some 500,000 pieces of paper in his life-time. That tends to make each single edition less valuable.

Continue Article >> The Controversy (Part 2)

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