Bloomberg Businessweek

To the Tipsy Guy on the Lido Deck!

Ever bought art on a cruise? Prepare to be seasick
Hammer time at a Park West maritime auction

Among the passengers gathered for the art auction, the guy sitting in front of me seemed the most likely to have attended just for the free booze. The advertisements left in our staterooms had promised Champagne, and amid the smart polo shirts and sundresses, this middle-aged man stood out as exceptionally casual: a white tank top with a faded “Virginia Beach” graphic, black athletic shorts, and a blue baseball cap pulled down close to his eyeglasses. It was 11:15 a.m., and our cruise ship, the Norwegian Epic, was transiting the strait between Sardinia and Corsica, taking almost 6,000 passengers and crew on an eastward course to mainland Italy. As the auction staff ushered in potential bidders, a waiter approached with a silver tray of bubbly. The man in the tank top scooped up a flute. “Breakfast!” he said.

Before bidding could start, the auctioneer instructed us to explore scores of artworks set up on easels around the room—impressionistic seasides, twee cottages by Thomas Kinkade, the Statue of Liberty as rendered by Peter Max, and a surreal composition featuring an anthropomorphic cocktail olive.

My Champagne-sampling neighbor’s name was Chuck Bialon, from Pittsburgh. He said he’d been to dozens of these auctions over the years and whispered a warning: “It’s a shell game.” Gallery staff milled about within earshot, offering potential collectors special prebid prices at what they said were steep discounts. Bialon, his voice lowered, outlined the hidden danger. The spotty onboard Wi-Fi made it next to impossible to Google around for fair-market prices, he said—and also made it unlikely passengers would learn that the company running the auction, Park West Gallery, has long been accused by angry customers of selling overpriced art as investments.

Still, Bialon added, there was that time he’d bought a Rembrandt. Paid almost $12,000 for it on a Carnival cruise of the western Caribbean. Hangs on his dining room wall. I wanted to ask more, but the head auctioneer had seen me taking notes. For the moment, I needed to move along and mingle with others. The whiff of scandal surrounding high-seas art auctions was the reason I was on the Epic.

Park West was founded in 1969, is based outside Detroit, and boasts it’s the world’s biggest art gallery. It sells pictures and sculptures at thousands of live auctions held on more than 100 ships each year. Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival all host Park West. And they all get a cut of the revenue. Park West

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