At one of the cruise ship art auctions I attended, the first item up for bid was... a spa treatment. You didn't read that wrong, it was a certificate for a massage or facial in the ship's spa. Hands were raised tentatively--the passengers seemed confused--and I was the ultimate winner with a bid of $35. The good news is that when I came forward to pay for my bargain, the certificate was given to me without charge (according to the auctioneer, the spa treatment was on the block to psych up participants and get them accustomed to bidding). The bad news is that I had to sit through the entire mind-numbing auction spiel in order to claim it.
A recent NY Times article had more criticism about floating art auctions than my simple boredom. As reported by the Times, some winning bidders are finding that appraisals done when back on land showed that the pieces they bought at sea didn't live up to their promised hype. Some unhappy customers in Florida and California have initiated class action lawsuits against Park West, which operates the art auction concession on such cruise lines as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Carnival, Disney, Holland America, Regent, and Oceania, accusing the company of misrepresenting the value of its art work.
This subject comes up every now and then, and Cruise Diva even discussed it with USA Today reporter Kitty Bean Yancey as long ago as 2001. As I told her then, "art auctions are beaucoup big-time moneymakers" in terms of onboard revenue enhancement for cruise lines. Plus, they are very popular and auctioneers often face a full room of eager cruisers. Some passengers are willing to attend because of the free champagne being served and then get caught up in the action only to suffer buyer's remorse later. However, while Yancy turned up buyers who weren't happy with their purchases, she also found a number who were quite satisfied. Not everyone is looking for an art "investment" and if you like what you bought and feel you were treated fairly, no harm's done.
What's my advice? Caveat emptor, "let the buyer beware"... the bottom line is to research any art purchase you are considering, whether at sea or on land, and know the worth of a piece before you buy it. That's not too difficult these days as many of the works up for sale during cruises are displayed pre-auction, cruise ships have Internet centers, and Google is just a few clicks away. Or, you could do as I do, and buy colorful prints and watercolors by local artists in ports of call as meaningful mementos of my travels.
And if you were wondering, I really enjoyed my free massage.