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Advice from a Recovered Art Auctioneer

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There is much to enjoy in an art auction aboard a cruise ship. The auction process can be quite entertaining for those who participate, and art itself can bring stimulation into even the most dreary life. Yet there is much to fear. I have been a professional artist, art historian, and also art dealer, and can assure you that being fleeced by an art dealer is by no means restricted to ships. First I will discuss some tips about the art world in general, then specifically about ships.

The easiest way to catch a lying salesperson, be it in gallery or auction, is when talking about limited editions. Watch for lines like ‘the lower the number, the more valuable the work’, or ‘the first numbers are crisper because the plates are fresher’ or ‘artist’s proofs are worth more.’ It’s all BS.

First of all, every work of a limited edition from any reputable atelier (workshop) is certified before it leaves, and if it’s not perfect then no reputable artist would sign it. Second, and far more revealing, is how the process works: hand-made lithographs have a different plate for each color, and use semi-transparent inks for blending (serigraphs a different screen). That’s a lot of plates, which means a lot of human error. So to get an edition of 100, you start with 200 runs of the first color plate, then throw out the mistakes (smudging, etc.). Now you have 193 left, for example, and run on top of those the second color plate. Throw out the mistakes that don’t align right, etc. and move on down the line of color plates until done. By the end you’ll have your 100, and any left over are labeled AP (artist proof) or PP (printer’s proof) or whatever else they want to call it. Thomas Kinkade, for example, made up dozens of such tags to give the illusion of exclusivity (ironic, because his weren’t done by hand and really were posters). There is no ‘first print pulled’ or ‘artist color check’ or any of that crap. All were assembled simultaneously. Thus, limited editions all have an identical tangible value. Until they begin to sell out, of course. Art is very much about supply and demand.

Ultimately, the real value of art is simply what someone wants to pay for it. That’s why Picasso paintings sell for $100M.

Beware the sales tool pushing art as an investment. That’s pure gambling. The biggest gains are always from the biggest risks. Is that a game you really want to play? How many people really wanted to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a Jackson Pollock splatter painting back when the average house cost $14,500? As luck (and a surprise encounter with a zillionaire art buyer and a dramatic, early demise) would have it, such a painting would now be worth millions. Yet most who bought Pollock’s works did so because they enjoyed his art for one reason or another, and that’s the only reason to buy art. Because you like it.

Buying art is like buying a car. The more you know about it, the less you can be had by a salesman. In Venice I went to an art dealer in Piazza San Marco selling Picassos. They were limited editions complete with certificates of authenticity for a few thousand euros, which I knew was about 1/80th the going price for what I was looking at. After scrutinizing the work a moment, I realized they were limited edition machine lithographs of an original Picasso limited edition hand-press etching. In other words, they Xeroxed the expensive Picasso and sold the copies in small batches. The certificate of authenticity was from the local company churning them out.

So what about art auctions at sea? I have a lot to say about art auctioneers, dishing on them (us) heavily in my book Ship for Brains. Because of international waters, are they inherently less trustworthy than galleries on land? No. Losing a contract with the cruise line is a killing blow for a gallery, so they won’t blatantly scam people. But that doesn’t mean individual art auctioneers aren’t liars. Many were in my days. One auctioneer, for example, promised a private lunch with the world-famous artist Peter Max with every purchase of a limited edition. Ludicrous he said it. Ludicrous people bought it. Eventually word of such antics forced the art gallery to videotape every auction and scrutinize every auctioneer for lies. Labor intensive, to be sure, but credibility is everything in the art world.

The most common question from American buyers was always: why is it so expensive? If you can’t tell the difference in quality between a $15 poster and a $1500 lithograph from Marcel Mouly, or are disdainful of any such difference, then collecting art isn’t for you. Art auctions sell quality art (well, there’s some crap, too: they are selling to the general public). This is an opportunity to learn the difference between that Star Wars poster still on your wall and a lithograph from a French atelier that worked with Picasso. And, just for the record, in college I learned to create lithographs, serigraphs, copper-plate etchings, etc, to earn my degree as art historian. It’s freakin’ HARD.

The most common misconception from American buyers was always: how can it be original if there is more than one? This concept is unique to us from the States. Maybe it comes from our inherent need for individuality, I don’t know. I do know it’s wrong. The vast majority of Americans are NOT educated about art: didn’t take classes in school (high school or college), don’t have it at home (or know anyone who does), don’t go to art museums, don’t spend time discussing its relevance (modern or historical). We are an extremely art-illiterate society. That’s OK. Yet these very same people insist that to be an original work means there is only one, such as a painting. That’s not OK. Admitting ignorance is the first step to overcoming it.

Anything that is made by hand by an artist is an original work of art. It’s a craft.

Art auctions on ships provide an introduction into a vastly complicated world. Can you learn all there is to know about wine (domestic, import, vintages, varietals, not to mention taste, bouquet, procedures, etal.) in a short presentation? Or when buying a car? Understand that auctions cater to the masses of unsophisticated buyers. It’s their business, it’s your opportunity. If you are serious about collecting art, do your homework. Are your best interests in mind when you’re educated by a salesman? I think not. If you’re worried about a good price, buy it outside the auction so you can haggle down instead of bidding up. Why, oh why do people forget that the whole darn point of an auction is to get the prices HIGHER?

If you are there for the excitement of an auction, great! Have fun. It’s not rigged, you’re just in their house and playing into their strengths, not yours. Auctions get people excited and they act impulsively. Most complainers aren’t scammed: they’re embarrassed. And, really, when any salesman gives you free booze, be careful!

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!



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