By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 7/21/2008 6:59:59 PM ET 2008-07-21T22:59:59

What’s the worst place on a cruise ship? If you ask regular cruisers, they might tell you to avoid the cigar bar or the Lido Pool area. But for me, it’s the art auction area.

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Why? Quite frankly, I think art auctions are a misuse of space on cruise ships — not to mention a complete waste of time and money.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate fine art. It’s just that most of the so-called art displayed for cruise ship galleries and auctions isn’t so fine and borders on tacky.

I am not alone. I’ve heard the groans amongst my fellow passengers upon encountering art displays around the ship. These art roadblocks force cruisers into a weaving obstacle course just to get from one part of the ship to another.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there was something interesting to look at. I mean, how many paintings and prints of cottages should one be inundated with? Even worse, the neon-colored glossy fliers heaped upon guests in their staterooms touting the auctions and free champagne are offensive, not to mention far from being a green-friendly practice.

Offensive or not, art auctions and galleries on cruise ships generate revenue and that’s music to most cruise executives’ ears. Still, off the record, many cruise line managers admit they aren’t big fans of the practice. Nevertheless, in the age of shrinking corporate balance sheets, any revenue source is a bright spot.

What’s not so bright is deceptive practices heaped upon some cruise passengers.

Art job
While on a recent cruise I decided to do a pre-dinner stroll of the art gallery and came upon a Picasso “painting.” I use the term “painting” because that’s exactly how several art gallery personnel described it.

They were using this “painting” for a contest. Guests had to estimate its value. The passenger who guessed closest to the actual price would win hundreds of dollars in credit to use towards an art purchase.

The Picasso in question was a man holding a cat. I knew it wasn’t a painting, but a print. I decided to play dumb and asked a lot of silly questions just to see what would happen.

I asked one of the gallery workers if this was a real Picasso painting worth millions why wasn’t it guarded? The worker laughed and said in a heavy Eastern European accent that there were plenty of them watching the “painting.”

I asked why this expensive “painting” was on a ship? Then I got the Park West Gallery spiel that they were the largest art gallery in the world with an extensive original art collection and had the most expertise on selling art at sea.

Indeed, Park West Gallery is the largest player in the high-seas art stakes. The Southfield, Mich., company has galleries onboard Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Carnival, Disney, Holland America, Regent and Oceania vessels. When Park West makes a sale, the cruise line takes a percentage of that sale.

I walked out of the gallery shaking my head, wondering how many gullible passengers would fall into this art trap and wishing the cruise lines would give this whole concept the heave-ho.

So, it was no surprise when I read that some passengers shared my misgivings about these art auctions in general and Park West in particular.

In one example, a passenger paid $19,468 for three Dali prints, only to come home and have them appraised from $850 to $1,000. Another passenger went to a German art fraud detective with his purchases and was informed that they were photomechanical reproductions and not lithographs. The German detective referred to the pieces as “poster art.”

Beware of buyer’s remorse
Shipboard art auctions can be a lot of fun, and they do offer free champagne. And that’s the problem.

Lured by the secure environment onboard the ship, many passengers are more likely to believe the value claims made by the art auctioneers. If you’re not careful with the cheap bubbly, you could end up owning a painting of four dogs playing poker.

I’ve seen this happen a number of times, and I’ve seen the remorseful bidder go home hundreds and thousands of dollars poorer.

Case in point: John and Helen Finch of Pittsburgh took their first cruise several years ago, a seven-day Alaska Inside Passage cruise on Princess. Seeing attractive art every day on the ship, Helen decided to attend one of the onboard art auctions. Before she knew it, she’d paid $800 for two lithographs — not something she had planned for. Even worse, the sale was final – the Finch’s were stuck.

My advice, if you see something you really like, take a picture of it and see if a local art gallery can find it or something like it for you. You usually get better art deals on land, where you can play the competition among galleries.

Better yet, take a photo of a beautiful landscape on your cruise and frame it. That will be a far better value and a terrific memory that will always remain priceless.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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