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Cruise lines draw profits from selling works of art

By Kitty Bean Yancey

February 9, 2001

Art auctions, once a rarity on the high seas, are finding a berth on most every cruise line these days.

''All the major ones have them,'' says Alan Gerstner, owner of The Cruise Corner & Vacation Center, a Wilmette, Ill., travel agency. In an era of fare slashing, art sales have become an on-board profit center, he and other industry watchers say.

And while auctions once were confined to a single room on the ship, ''now it's gotten so intrusive in the public areas,'' says cruise travel writer Linda Coffman, who opines at ''On some ships, you can't walk down halls without tripping over easels'' of works for sale.

Taking home a painting or print--whether it be a $50 offering from an obscure artist or a $30,000 Picasso--definitely floats some passengers' boats, but others are at sea about whether they're getting good value.

Not thrilled is Debra Erickson of Bedford, Pa., who spent about $57,000 at auctions run by Park West Gallery on a July sailing of Carnival's Triumph. When she and her husband got home, they found that some of the Chagall and Dali prints and animation frames from popular cartoons they bought could be purchased for far less on land.

''It's a scam,'' she says of the auctions. ''We were naive novices. We thought we were getting a good price.''

The couple refused to accept Park West Gallery's all-sales-final policy, and ''we sent back most of the art,'' Erickson says. Getting a refund took more than six months and required the intervention of her credit card issuers. She still hasn't seen all her money, she says.

The Southfield, Michigan gallery, which sold 200,000 pieces of art on more than a half-dozen cruise lines last year, says Erickson will get her refund even though sales are deemed final. ''For every unhappy customer, there are 10,000 happy ones,'' Park West president Albert Scaglione says. ''We've got the volume, and we offer outstanding value.''

Among satisfied bidders is Lisa Hanba of Flushing, Michigan, who bought four prints for $1,075 on a Regal cruise out of New York--''a third of what I would have had to pay if I had seen them in a gallery,'' she says.

Still, the Salvador Dali Gallery in Pacific Palisades, California reports 50 calls a week from cruisers who question the value of what they bought once back on dry land and able to do research on the Internet and with galleries. ''These people (auctioneers) are blatantly overcharging'' people who are unsophisticated about art and have no way to check out the legitimacy of prices while at sea, says Salvador Dali Gallery director Bruce Hochman.

''People get caught up in the excitement'' and overbid, agrees Coffman. She thinks cruise companies turn a blind eye because ''they're interested in on-board revenue enhancements. I've been told those art auctions are beaucoup big-time moneymakers.''

Cruise lines, which get an undisclosed percentage of art-sale profits, say that auctions would be offloaded if they didn't make a splash with passengers. ''We have very, very few complaints'' about art auctions, says Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. ''They are a popular activity.''

''The reaction is good, or we wouldn't have them,'' echoes Crystal Cruises spokeswoman Mimi Weisband, who has bought artwork at the auctions.

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises also is pleased with reaction to the sales.

''Believe me, if our guests felt they'd been ripped off, we'd hear about it,'' says marketing director Andrew Poulton. ''And if we felt in any way there was anything unethical (about the auctions), we would terminate the agreement.''

Caution is still advisable, says Stephen Abt, CEO of ArtFact Inc, a clearinghouse for auction data. ''If you're away from home and disembodied from support mechanisms, you're vulnerable.''

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