“Should I buy Art on my Cruise?”

A rather unpleasant, although quite enlightening, part of my job over the years has been appraising art that was purchased on a cruise.  The unpleasant part of it is being the person that informs an owner of the true identity of their purchases and the true value.  Several times, the calls have come from buyers just as the art has arrived or even before they have taken possession of their purchases.   These buyers have gotten home where they have access to the internet and done a little investigation of the reputations of the sellers.  Or, they have become nervous about their own knowledge level about what exactly they have purchased.   Both of these are very legitimate concerns!  Yes, the name connected with the art is famous.  We have all heard of Picasso, Rembrandt, Dalí, Miró, etc. But, several questions remained unasked or at least unanswered until after the at-sea auctions were conducted and the buyers have had a chance to soberly consider their purchases. Just how connected to the named artist is this piece on which I am bidding? Where does it fit the body of his/her work (the artist’s oeuvre)?  Is this a well-known piece?  A minor piece? Is it even a legitimate part of the artist’s oeuvre?  The auctioneer is quoting some astounding values for this piece but it seems that I can get it at this auction for quite a lot less than the quotes?  Where do those values come from?  Who sets them?  Does anyone set them?  Does anyone stand behind the quoted values?

My very best advice as a professional art advisor and art appraiser of over 20 years is this…when you go on a cruise, spend your money on the adventure outings or perhaps a great day at the spa.   Lots of people buy artwork on vacation.   It is a GREAT way to have something more than a plastic doo-dad to remember and enjoy the trip.   I am always looking at art and if I find a wonderful piece while on vacation, I consider it a real bonus to the trip.  But, even on vacation, I follow this rule.  Always buy from a dealer with a land-based gallery.   If possible, check the number of years the dealer has been in business.  Try to ask the dealer about their return policies.  Most good dealers will ship a piece from your vacation spot to your home and give you a few days to live with it before the sale is final.  If you decide that the piece just does not fit your lifestyle or work in your home, you should only be out the cost of shipping to you and back to the gallery.  It is disappointing to the dealer that you changed your mind, but they should accept the piece back willingly.   There should be no re-stocking fees or other onerous policies.

Also, do not fool yourself that the $ 3,000 you spent on that print is an “investment.”  Art can be and incredible investment.  I work with many clients who invest in art.  But, what they all know is this….

  • Even well-bought art takes time to appreciate.   We all hear stories of the person that walked in, bought a piece for a few dollars at a garage sale and resold it quickly for thousands or even hundreds-of-thousands.  I assure you that these are the vast exceptions to the rule and are usually done by the person who has spent his whole life building his connoisseurship.   There are no bargains to be had at the cruise ship auctions!
  • Investments in art usually do not occur at the $ 3,000 level.   At that level, what you likely will purchase is a lovely painting (original) by an artist of local-only reputation or a print by an artist with a little wider-known reputation.  When you decide to sell the art, what you will be able to achieve in the secondary market will be directly tied to whether the artist you bought has built a reputation in the resale market.  Serious investors in art usually have lots of other investments and buy art to enjoy, live with and hedge against the ups and downs of their other investments.
  • Art is one of the least liquid investments available.   When the time comes to resale a piece it is likely to take several months to get it into the best market, get the piece sold and get paid.  Unless you are an art professional, this will involve paying commissions to an auction house or a broker.  So, your piece will have had to appreciated quite a bit before you will be able to make a profit on the resale.

A few years ago I got a call from a very nice lady who begged to see me within a few days of the time she called.  She was desperate to have an independent appraiser take a look at the Picasso print that she and a friend had jointly purchased on their latest cruise.  “You see,” they told me, “the auctioneer said that this Picasso is currently valued at $ 20,000. We were able to buy it for $8,000.  So, we figured we would split the price, sell it when it arrived and pay for our cruises with the profits.”  I would have laughed at the naïveté  except that these ladies were so nice and so earnest.  It is a fact that Picasso prints can be worth $ 20,000 or more.  I have seen Picasso prints sold for more than double that amount.  However, the piece they had purchased was only very loosely associated with Picasso.  It was a serigraph poster print done in a large edition and was not even hand-signed.

Life lesson here—whatever an auctioneer says during the course of the auction cannot be proven after the fact.   To give him the benefit of the doubt, he might not have even said what these sweet women remembered. The auctioneer might have said, “I have seen this print sell for up to $ 20,000.”  Or, he might have said, “I have seen Picasso prints sell for much more than $ 20,000.”  But, neither of those statements makes any promises as to the current value of the print they purchased.  What these two buyers heard was “Picasso…worth $ 20,000.”  Auctioneers should always be truthful.  But, if you have a legal dispute, it is next to impossible to prove anything that transpired verbally.  So, what is printed in those auction catalogs is exceedingly important.  One should examine closely the descriptions of the art and the return policies of the auction house, whether aboard ship or on land.

The good news for these two ladies was that they had contacted me in a very timely fashion.  Credit card policies generally favor a consumer’s ability to make returns as long as they are made in a short period of time.  Also, the cruise line involved did not want the “bad press” associated with unhappy customers and worked with them to get all but their restocking fees and shipping expenses.   Rather than costing them $ 10,000 ($ 8,000 + buyer’s premium -20% + crating and shipping costs), they ended up returning the art and owing less than $ 1,000.  Of course, I did charge them for the appraisal I prepared.

Although I cannot report about all artwork that is offered for sale on cruises, I can say on the basis of what makes its way back to me for appraisal that the mix generally seems to be very minor pieces by artists with highly recognizable names,  prints by current artists of mid-level reputations, and some originals by a few living artists with whom the auction purveyor has struck up an arrangement to sell large quantities of work.  When Old Master prints are involved, all the pieces that I have seen have been very late, “mushy” prints, or worse yet, heliographic reproductions.   There are very good reasons that the sales occur while at sea in international waters.   There are good reasons that the short preview times are festive and involve those lovely beverages.   Do you really have time or the telephone/internet access necessary to do a reasoned comparison of the offerings with other pieces offered for sale by the same artist?

So, go get some sun!  Eat the wonderful food.  See the sights.  Enjoy the cruise.  But, save the money you intended to spend on art and contact a great dealer in your own home town!  You will be a much more savvy collector!

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