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Confessions of a cruise-ship auction addict

Facing class actions, cruise ships have either abolished auctions or told auctioneers to tone down their acts

View from Viking Crown Lounge Prayitno

I have a confession: I am addicted to auctions on cruise ships.

I don’t go to buy, but rather to watch hucksters take money off gullible Americans. It all starts with the invitation to attend a “champagne auction preview”. Champagne, eh? Very classy. Not really. It is sparkling wine. Still, it creates the required atmosphere.

The auctioneer—usually a man—starts by telling us how much he loves art. He does not just sell art: he is a collector himself. Later he will tell us which painters’ works he collects. Coincidentally, he has also got a lot of works by this artist to sell. He starts chucking out names. “Dalí, Chagall, Picasso…” Always those three, the premier league. Then he will throw in another—Pino Daeni or Peter Max—someone bright, splashy and populist. And then there will be another name, one that you definitely have not heard of. Say, Poshinsky (who I have just made up). Remember, at this stage, they are not selling anything. On the contrary, they are giving us everything: “champagne” and raffle tickets to win worthless prints.

The auctioneer could not be any more patronising: “So, who can tell me what kind of art Dalí specialised in?” A hand goes up. “Surrealism.” “Well done, sir: here’s a raffle ticket!” Next, the classic spiel: “We’re all art lovers. Is art a great investment? Sometimes, but you should only buy art because you love it. But if you had bought a Picasso drawing in 1947, you would have paid a few hundred dollars and now that drawing might be a worth a few million. So who is to say what the future value will be of work that you buy here?”

Who indeed. Give me some of that art, now! But, no, there is to be no selling today. Today was just about whetting our appetites. We do not know it yet, but we are on a journey that will end up with us owning a genuine Poshinsky.

And we’re off…

The auction starts. It becomes obvious that estimates are not guides, but buy-it-now prices. It is called an auction, but I cannot recall anyone actually bidding against anyone else; we are fellow passengers and it would be bad form. Besides, on the rare occasions that more than one person expresses interest, the auctioneer always digs out another. No matter how “limited” the edition, there is a seemingly endless supply.

“Let’s have a bit of fun,” says the auctioneer, whose expression says quite the opposite. “I’m going to put up three canvasses turned over so that you can’t see the pictures. If you want to bid then please stand up. Who knows? There might be a Dalí, a Chagall or a Picasso? Or a Pino, a Poshinsky or a Thomas Kinkade.” Everyone but me stands up. The pictures—“limited” editions by no one you have ever heard of—are turned around. People buy them for $60-$80 dollars each. With buyer’s premium, tax and shipping, they will get no change from $250.

The “bit of fun” is no loss leader: it is a rip-off. Passengers are lulled, feted, flattered and then conned. But do not take my word for it. There have been class actions in recent years against the predatory companies who pay cruise lines for the concession to flog worthless art to off-guard holidaymakers keen to impress the auctioneer or his (pretty and female) assistant. In one case, a passenger paid $19,468 for three Dalí prints, only to come home and have them appraised as worth less than $1,000.

Even when you think you’ve bought something original, it can turn out to be little more than a poster. That lithograph is probably a photomechanical reproduction.

I know nothing about art. But I have a nose for hucksterism. Generally speaking, if something looks too good to be true, it is. Besides, you can buy the same print for a fraction of the price on eBay. I once pointed this out to an auctioneer in mid-spiel and was rewarded with glares from my fellow passengers. How dare I spoil the fun, break the spell? I sloped off before I could be chucked overboard. That actually happened, in 2009, to an American teacher who was removed from a Royal Caribbean cruise for distributing a flier pointing out that Park West Gallery, which was flogging art on the ship, was facing several lawsuits for selling over-priced prints.

Going, going… gone

Now it is the final auction. There are no more questions and no more raffle tickets. There is the usual mix of originals by unknown artists, lithographs and limited-edition prints by the usual suspects, and then there’s something called a giclée, which the auctioneer sounds very keen on. I have never heard of this, so I go on to Wikipedia: “Giclée is a neologism coined in 1991 by printmaker Jack Duganne for fine art digital prints made on inkjet printers. It is often used by artists, galleries and print shops to suggest high-quality printing, but since it is an unregulated word it has no associated warranty of quality.” However, my fellow art lovers are buying anything, everything.

Even so, the auctioneer raises the stakes. “So how many of an artist’s works do you have to own before you can be called a collector?” The audience knows the answer; they have been told it many times by this very man. “Three!” they yell, enraptured.

It is Poshinsky time. There are three originals and any number of hand-­embellished prints/lithographs/giclées. Everyone buys one or more. They would rather go home without their passport than without a Poshinsky. Never mind that they had not even heard of him before the cruise. That was merely their ignorance. If only they had bought a Picasso in 1940-whatever-it-was. Well, they can make up for that omission by buying a Poshinsky now.

The class actions spelt the beginning of the end for the auctions. Cruise lines have either abolished them altogether or told auctioneers to tone down their acts. Good news for their potential victims, but a great shame for mischievous aficionados like me. So as the cruise ship auctioneer joins the door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman in one of the outer circles of the inferno, one question remains: does anyone want to buy a genuine Poshinsky?

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 300 April 2018