From onboard water parks, to rock climbing and bungee trampolines, today’s cruise ships offer no shortage of thrills and spills for paying passengers. But among the eclectic mix of activities available is one that appeals perhaps more to the head that the heart: the chance to buy a rare Picasso, or possibly an unmistakable Dali.

With a captive audience seeking a memorable experience – and willing to spend big to get it – cruise ships have proved popular places to hold art auctions that were once the preserve of land-based galleries.

Over the past two decades almost every major cruise company has offered auctions on board its ships.

Park West Gallery, the largest supplier of artwork for cruise lines, says it currently operates auctions on over 90 ships around the world and conducts thousands of auctions per year on board. Founded in 1969, the Michigan-based company has seen annual sales as high as $400m.

“Our cruise ship programs continue to grow every single year,” says John Litchenberg, Park West Gallery’s vice president of marketing.

Enduring appeal

The enduring appeal of art auctions on cruise ships, according to Litchenberg, is that they offer something for everyone, whether it’s a Sotheby’s and Christie’s regular or a cruiser usually more interested in spas and sunbeds.

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“Our mission has always been making art exciting and affordable for everyone, not just a few elite collectors.”

And whether it’s the free champagne, the exuberant auctioneer or art enrichment lectures led by experienced auction staff, even those that aren’t interested in actually buying art can usually find something that interests them.

“Our mission has always been making art exciting and affordable for everyone, not just a few elite collectors,” Litchenberg says. “That mission has resonated with people around the globe. In our 50 years, we’ve helped over two million people learn the joy of collecting art.”

Research suggests that “joy” has been passed down from generation to generation. A recent study conducted by Park West found that millennials are “almost twice as likely as baby boomers to say they both know something about art (63% to 34%), and almost universally agree that they appreciate art”.

Four out of five millennials that responded to the Park West survey said that art was important to them, the highest percentage of any age group. “In terms of what’s driving interest, I don’t think you can discount the power of social media,” says Litchenberg. “According to our study, 73% of millennials said that social media enhances how they experience art.”

Unhappy customers

But while the appeal of auctions continues to resonate with some cruisers, others have strongly criticised the industry. In his essay Confessions of a cruise-ship auction addict, the author Mitchell Symons described auctions as controlled by “predatory companies who pay cruise lines for the concession to flog worthless art to off-guard holidaymakers keen to impress the auctioneer.”

His harsh words are not without merit. Over the past decade, companies selling art at sea have been hit with a string of lawsuits alleging all kinds of malpractice including inauthentic art, phantom bidding, delayed delivery purchases, damaged frames and more.

“Companies selling art at sea have been hit with a string of lawsuits alleging all kinds of malpractice.”

Over the years a number of complaints have been made specifically against Park West with customers claiming its art is sometimes sold at bloated prices based on dodgy appraisals using “high-pressure” sales tactics.

In 2008, the New York Times published an article about Luis Maldonado, a businessman from San Diego who paid $24,265 for a 1964 “Clown” print by Picasso. The newspaper reported that Sotheby’s had sold the “exact same print in London for about $6,150 in 2004”.

Maldonado had also paid $31,110 for a 1968 Picasso print called the “Le Clown” that he later found being sold on the online art database for around $5,000. The businessman was later offered a full refund by Park West.

Bloomberg Businessweek has reported that since 2008, Park West has faced 21 lawsuits. A 2010 plaintiffs’ filing against the company, cited by Bloomberg, lambasted a “scheme” that “targeted individuals who, while unawares relaxing on their vacations, are wined and dined by Park West and Cruise Line employees and are subjected to Defendants’ art fraud scheme”.

Changes afoot

The controversies have left a mark on the industry with some cruise ships dropping art auctions altogether and others offering new ways of selling art, including onboard galleries where items are sold at clear, listed prices and meet and greets with specific artists.

“We are dedicated to making the collecting experience satisfying and safe for our collectors.”

But it has certainly not ended the art auction phenomenon, according to Litchenberg. Asked what new practices Park West has introduced to increase transparency and customer satisfaction, Lichtenberg mentions a “50/50/50 Satisfaction Guarantee”, introduced “in honor of our 50 years in business”.

“Our cruise ship collectors have 50 days to return any work of art – with no fees of any kind – or 50 months to exchange it,” he says, adding that “the response we’ve gotten from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive so far. We are dedicated to making the collecting experience satisfying and safe for our collectors.”

For passengers, the website Cruise Critic recommends a few strategies to avoid so-called buyer’s remorse: researching the difference between original works, limited editions and poster art; checking the authenticity of what you are buying; and, above all, making sure the purchase makes sense for you.