Going once. Going twice." The gavel falls. "Sold to the highest bidder!"
It's not a Sotheby's or Christie's auction, but rather a fine-art auction at sea.
You won't find any Elvis on velvet, reproductions or posters. Cruise passengers can bid on original watercolors, hand-painted limited editions, etchings, signed lithographs and animation art in a relaxed, fun atmosphere. Even if you do not consider yourself art savvy, you likely will recognize artists' names, such as Hanna Barbera, Pablo Picasso, Peter Max, Salvador Dali and Erte.
All art up for auction reads like a who's who from the 16th century to the present. Consider Rembrandt, Chagall, Itzchak Tarkay, Lucelle Raad, Claude Cambour, Marcel Mouly, Linda LeKinff, Jean-Claude Picot, Janet Treby, Anatole Krasnyansky, Emile Bellet and Fanch (a k a Francois Ledan) -- the list goes on almost ad infinitum.
Recently, collectible sports memorabilia was added to the mix. Often woven into the art auction, items include footballs signed by Joe Montana, boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali and a baseball owned by Pete Rose.
Park West Gallery in Southfield, Mich., coordinates and conducts art auctions aboard more than 60 ships of major cruise lines, including Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Festival, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Windstar. London Contemporary Art, based in London's tony Chelsea district, handles Radisson Seven Seas.
Albert Scaglione, president of Park West, founded the company in 1969 and has been in the business of presenting art auction aboard cruise ships since 1994. He's known Peter Max since the 1960s, "when we both had long hair." Today, the works of Max, Tarkay and LeKinff remain exclusive offerings of Park West.
Asked if he has a favorite, Scaglione says, "I'm a collector. If you come to my house, there's no double standard. You'll find the same art as at the gallery and on cruise ships. I sell what I collect, and I collect what I sell. I just like art to be beautiful."
Art, indeed, remains subjective. "When you buy art, the artist is giving a part of himself -- his soul," says Scaglione. People may buy art for investment, for beauty, for the artist's famous name, or simply to be part of their home's furnishings.
"We think we bring fine art to the masses," he says. "It's a great value to the cruise ship audience. Art auctions are fun and light. No one is intimidated, it's not stuffy, and the art is very accessible."
The auctions seem to hit the right note with passengers. Mimi Weisband, spokeswoman for upscale Crystal Cruises, says, "Overall, the feedback is quite positive, and people have been very happy with their purchases. I can tell you, if it weren't positive, then we would discontinue it. Also, while we may display the art, the auction itself is really only attended by those who are interested."
Generally, there are several art auctions during each cruise, even those that are three to four days in length. An at-sea day seems to be an ideal time for auctions. Passengers are kept informed about the events via vignettes on their cabin TV, daily news bulletins and special fliers. Artwork to be auctioned is often displayed in public areas to tempt buyers.
Art is set out for preview 30 minutes before the auction. During that time, you can register for a bid card, meander about the art and put a sticker on any piece that piques your interest. Potential bidders receive a detailed booklet of about 60 pages that provides terms, a helpful glossary and descriptions of the artists. A well-versed art auctioneer will be at the preview. Feel free to ask him or her questions about the pieces. The auctioneer is available throughout the cruise, and may even accompany shore excursions that feature art museums.
In addition to matter-of-factly educating the audience on the artist and his work, the art auctioneer also may be playful. During a recent cruise, for instance, an auctioneer placed a painting backward on the easel and said, "OK, who wants to take a risk and open the bid at $10?" Without fail, someone raised a bid card, then another bidder, and another. Soon a work of Jean-Claude Picot worth hundreds of dollars went for $50 to a woman from Chicago. She seemed doubly pleased at the end of the auction when her ticket was drawn for a free Alex Perez painting.
Another middle-age woman from St. Louis won the bid on a vivid Mediterranean scene by Shari Hatchett Bohlmann. "I have a few of her paintings at home," she said. "This is a good way for me to add to the collection."
Because no middleman is involved, the gallery is able to offer considerable savings, often between 50 percent and 80 percent. Works go from $50 to $500 to $5,000. A recent auction found a coveted Dali on display worth $17,000. No takers on that one. A Peter Max original with an estimated worth of $8,600 sold for $5,500. A friend of the purchaser from New York pointed out, "He has his walls lined with Peter Max."
It works like this: The auctioneer opens with a reasonable bidding price, and you raise your bid card if you want to place your bid. Or you don't have to bid at all. You can just sit back and enjoy the banter and light-hearted bargaining. Recently, one couple from Michigan became so engrossed in the auction that they inadvertently bid against each other.
Originals from the "collectors' portfolio" come framed. You can accept the frame already on the art, select another from Park West, or have the piece framed once you get home.
Once the gavel falls on your bid, the price of the duty-free art is added to your shipboard account. Also included are a nominal buyer's premium; sales tax, if you reside in either Florida or Michigan; and shipping and handling charges. Usually, your purchase will be shipped to you about six weeks after the cruise. In some cases, you can take smaller pieces art with you. Regardless of how you receive your art, it'll come with a letter of authenticity and certificate of appraisal.
Why would the works of a well-known artist be offered at auction on a cruise ship? Peter Max, who has known Albert for about 30 years, says, "He was always out of the box. He took art to America. When I heard about the ship art auctions, I thought it was quite energetic and risky of him. The art world can be staid and uppity. I thought it was a great idea to bring art to the people. Here, you take art to people on a nice ship, out in the air and sun, traveling to some of the best places on Earth. I love to paint and to reach people. Now I do that when they're at leisure on a ship."
Kay Harwell Fernandez is a free-lance writer who lives in Ormond Beach.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times