Newbies: Cruising for a bruising

cruiseship.jpgAlmost a month ago, loyal Artworld Salon reader Gallerina sent me a link to this article detailing controversy surrounding Park West at Sea, an outfit that conducts art auctions aboard 70 cruise ships, with lots including editioned pieces drawn from the oeuvreds of Picasso, Renoir, Dali, Erte and Toulouse-Lautrec, among other name-brand artists. The investigative piece by Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner reads like a caveat emptor aimed at art-market newbies. It starts thus:

Like thousands of tourists, Gary and Olga Holloway went on a Caribbean cruise for relaxation. The Scottsdale couple also wound up learning about fine art thanks to Park West at Sea, a company that conducts onboard auctions. Before the trip was over last June, they had spent $17,836 on three limited-edition prints by Rembrandt van Rijn, plus one by Dali.

Gary Holloway was thrilled with his sophisticated investment, backed by appraisals and letters of authenticity.The works showed a total “retail replacement price” of about $24,000. Holloway figured he had actually made money while on vacation. Back home in Arizona, he enjoyed looking at the artwork for six months, then advertised it on eBay. He got no bid over $1,000 and was puzzled to find similar prints offered for one-quarter of his purchase price.

Wagner also reports, that Nevada steelman Jim Russell bought a Jules Cheret chalk drawing for $24,700, then discovered online that Park West had recently bought the drawing for $2,000. Park West lawyer Morris Shapiro’s response: “Surely, Mr. Russell could not reasonably think that he was buying ‘at cost,’ especially in a competitive auction environment. Respectfully, Mr. Russell bid and paid what he chose to bid and pay.”

Of course, both buyers complained to Park West, and were rebuffed by the company’s attorneys, who pointed toward the fine print in the buying agreement and the accompanying appraisals, within which the company “assumes no liability for claims that our appraisal is inaccurate.” In general, the article makes clear that this floating auction house benefits greatly from the ignorance of its clientele. Wagner cites veteran art appraiser Corinne Cain of Phoenix, who says that while Park West’s labeling was technically accurate, potential buyers most likely lacked the sophistication to see that the information pointed to the artwork’s comparatively low desirability.

For example, Cain said, the phrase “signed in the stone” means an artist did not individually sign the work. Another term, “pochoir,” describes a stencil print that is generally less valuable than an original etching or lithograph. Shapiro’s answer: “If someone doesn’t understand ‘signed in stone’ or ‘pochoir,’ please, these are adults. They need only to ask. Is that so surprising or unfair?”

Worse yet – though hardly an accusation unheard-of concerning major auction houses – Wagner notes that there are allegations of Park West auctioneers inflating bids through using fictional underbidders, aka “bidding against the chandelier,” which has led to Park West facing a potential class-action lawsuit with up 1 million plaintiffs.

Obviously, the Park West at Sea story has very little to do with the artworld which ArtworldSalon normally discusses. And I know it’s tempting for many artworld insiders to label these people as Philistines fallen victim to their own ignorance. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder: To what degree has the steady stream of articles positing artworks as “the new asset class,” running in reputable publications and often quoting artworld insiders, contributed to making possible the confidence games Park West allegedly unleashed upon those pleasure cruisers?

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