Lots of Caveats for Art Buyers on Cruise Ships

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To some, Royal Caribbean’s fleet of fifteen cruise ships are just big boats, but looking more closely one can see that they are actually floating art galleries. Hallways, lounges, dining and recreation rooms all contain a wide assortment of original paintings and prints. These artworks are the subject of free art walks and lectures that Royal Caribbean arranges during the course of the voyage, and they are all for sale during the four art auctions that generally take place on board within a seven-day cruise. “We do it because it’s actually a way of getting cultural enrichment for our passengers, as well as some profit for us,” said the vice-president of shipboard revenue for Royal Caribbean, adding that the cruise line receives an undisclosed percentage of each sale. “It’s a profit center that makes everyone happy.”

Profits are certainly in abundance and, within the past decade, almost every ocean-going cruise line visiting ports in the United States has instituted a program of art auctions as an activity and entertainment for passengers. (Only Disney Cruise Lines does not offer art sales as part of its regular event planning, although it holds silent auctions of Disney animation cels and memorabilia on board.) The market for art on cruise ships is enormous, and approximately half a million works of art are sold through on board auctions annually. On Royal Caribbean cruises, approximately 22,500 works of art are sold during the course of a year. Prices for the art start as low as $100 (posters, for instance) and may reach thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars) for limited edition prints or paintings by renowned artists, such as Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Peter Max, Joan Miro, Leroy Neiman, and Pablo Picasso.

The average auction price for artwork sold during cruises tends to be more on the lower end, although the actual amounts differ from one cruise line to another and from one ship to the next, reflecting the demographics of the passengers. For instance, the average price of artwork sold during Carnival Cruises, a line that aims for the budget-conscious vacationer, is in the $250-300 range, while the more luxury-minded passengers of Cunard spend an average of $500. (Prices may be higher if the work is framed.) In general, the itinerary of the cruise, the cost of being on the ship, and how new and luxurious the ship is will be reflected in the income levels of passengers, who spend accordingly.

The seagoing companies themselves do not purchase art or take it on consignment to sell but hire one or other of the handful of art businesses that operate auctions on cruise lines. The largest of these is Park West Gallery, which is headquartered in Southfield, Michigan, and has contracts with eight cruise lines (Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, Silver Sea, and Windstar) through which 300,000 artworks are sold annually. Park West has been in the art selling business since 1969, according to Albert Scaglione, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, but only began working with cruise lines in 1991, “only because we hadn’t thought of doing that before.”

Certainly, the people who take cruises are generally well-off financially and have a limited number of opportunities to buy anything on board. The atmosphere on a cruise, Scaglione said, is “relaxed, and people are favorably disposed to spending money.” As opposed to a regular land-based art gallery, where “someone may come in, look around and then leave, and you never see him again,” the art director has “a whole week to work with” potential buyers on board.

Passengers may also relax their usual skepticism, as the credibility of the cruise line—from which people already have bought tickets—is extended to the art sales. Their main source of information about the art comes from a well-trained art director; there are no competing art galleries, and the Internet (most ships provide access, only charging fees for downloads) offers only limited help in learning about a previously unknown artist or even about a better known artist’s sales history or investment potential.

A chief selling point for the art directors is that the artwork costs less on board than it would at a land-based art gallery, where overhead costs of rent, promotion, and a 50 percent or more commission to the dealer keep prices high. (On board purchases are also duty-free.) Testing that claim is not easily done, since the art auction companies are often the principal sources for buying the same artwork.

One last caveat: As at better-known art auction houses as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the buyers' final bid is not the total price that they will pay. Often, there is a “buyer’s premium” of between 10 and 15 percent (payable to the auction company or the cruise line) that is added to the winning bid, and framing may be an additional charge.