A decade ago, cruise-ship art auctions were all the rage, and just about every mainstream line offered this diversion. On most ships today, you can still sip some Champagne, browse the gallery and then bid on a painting or limited-edition print to take home as a memento of your vacation. These auctions, originally dominated by Michigan-based Park West Gallery, feature works by a range of artists from the masters of the Renaissance to contemporary luminaries. A series of enrichment lectures and cocktail/viewing parties, led by the art auction staff, typically precedes the pull-out-all-the-stops auction toward the end of the itinerary.

Find a Cruise
In 2008, however, art auctions started to get a bad reputation. Travelers spearheaded class action lawsuits in several states against various galleries at sea, alleging unsavory business practices like inflated list prices and inauthentic art. The bad press diluted interest in the auctions, and the allegations and customer complaints have been loud enough to cause a few lines to dump the concept altogether.

Although auctions are still an integral aspect of the enrichment program aboard certain vessels, several lines have found other innovative ways to showcase art, encourage art appreciation and occasionally even put that art into the hands of their guests. Some cruise lines now curate art collections that rival museums and present in-depth tours on every sailing. Other companies have developed art-themed enrichment classes, where you can meet with and learn from contemporary art masters. A few ships even make the effort to place regional art in onboard boutiques to give passengers the opportunity to purchase affordable, art-related remembrances of their voyages.

If you love art -- or if you're new to the field but would like to learn more -- cruises present a myriad of opportunities to discover new aspects of the art world.

What Are Onboard Art Auctions?

For those uninitiated, onboard art auctions are either presented by land-based galleries -- like Park West Gallery -- or, in some instances like on Princess Cruises' ships, by the line's own in-house art auction division.

Most ships dedicate an area for the exclusive use of the gallery, which may showcase paintings, serigraphs, lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, engravings and the like. According to Park West's Executive Vice President Stoney Goldstein, "The vast majority of these works [at Park West auctions] are either paintings or limited-edition works."

Passengers are free to browse the gallery at any time. In addition, art auctioneers and gallery directors schedule educational lectures and auction previews throughout each cruise. This gives travelers a chance to ask questions about the pieces prior to an auction or just learn a bit more about art in general.

The collection is often dependent on the cruise itself and the demographics of the passengers. Goldstein explained, "The collections are curated in order to meet the needs of the particular guests onboard each specific ship. We are typically going to curate a 21-day cruise in the Baltic differently than a three-day cruise to the Bahamas. You'll sometimes find some overlap of selection; however the bottom-line here is to simply provide the works that we know, based on years of experience, the clients that sail with our cruise-line partners will want to collect."

On ships that offer art auctions, Park West Gallery still has a stronghold, with a presence aboard Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas; West End Gallery does business aboard Disney Cruise Line ships; and British American Auctions holds court on Celebrity Cruises ships. Princess Cruises decided years ago that it could operate a more engaging auction presence aboard its ships than any mainstream gallery could, so it created the Princess Fine Arts Auction. Many Princess passengers appreciate knowing with exactly whom they're dealing when it comes to these purchases, and dealing with an in-house company gives them an increased sense of security when buying art onboard.

Auction Alternatives

Ten years ago, almost every major cruise ship offered auctions, but that's not the case now. Both Windstar Cruises and Oceania Cruises dropped auctions from their rosters in recent years, and Royal Caribbean ended a longtime relationship with Park West. Luxury lines in particular have almost always eschewed art auctions.

Don't think that cruise lines without art auctions have abandoned art enrichment altogether. Quite the opposite -- these lines are coming up with new and different ways to give their passengers access to and education in art. Here's what you may find onboard:

Enrichment programs: Stalwarts like Crystal Cruises, Seabourn and Oceania Cruises curate impressive permanent installations of museum-quality art aboard their ships but do not offer auctions. Executives at these lines say their guests are generally already art aficionados, so there's no compelling reason to provide art sales to a demographic that has access to art elsewhere.

However, on these ships, art enrichment lectures and art-focused shore excursions are de rigueur. Regent Seven Seas offers an engaging Spotlight on Art series and invites experts to present lectures throughout the cruise and accompany guests on art-related excursions. Trips ashore range from visits to museums and private art collections to significant houses of worship and architectural monuments.

Art tours: Some lines make their art collections interactive by offering art tours. Holland America makes it easy for passengers to get acquainted with the line's extensive art collection before even stepping aboard with its downloadable, ship-specific MP3 tours. These half-hour narrated walking tours include artist interviews, music and thumbnail versions of the works you'll see on the ship. Download the tours before your vacation to your iPod or MP3 player, or borrow a preloaded player on the ship.

Celebrity Cruises is also quite proud of its contemporary art collection and enjoys encouraging a love of art among its guests. There are more than 14,000 works of fine art across Celebrity's Solstice-class ships alone, and the line is currently using Apple's iPad technology to introduce guests to these pieces. Simply seek out one of the ship's iPads at the Celebrity iLounge, and you can access a self-guided, deck-by-deck tour of the art. Touch the onscreen graphic to learn the title of the work, the artist and the medium, and read a full description of the piece. While you can't purchase art from Celebrity's private collection, the company does offer a series of auctions in conjunction with British American Auctions.

Oasis of the Seas is the only ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet that offers art tours and auctions, presented by Art Actually, a group dedicated to creating awareness of contemporary art. Art Actually staff members present one-hour walking tours of Oasis to introduce travelers to a fraction of the more than 8,000 pieces of artwork onboard. Guests are also invited to explore "Art Space," an area of the ship that showcases a constantly changing collection of pieces from a variety of artists. Wine and cheese parties are staged in the gallery, as are traditional auctions.

Artist meet-and-greets: Celebrity is in the habit of inviting artists aboard its ships for passenger meet-and-greets. Pop artist Peter Max celebrated his birthday aboard Celebrity Solstice in October 2010. Passengers attended his guest lectures, had the opportunity to bid on one of his paintings (the proceeds of which were donated to the Crew Fund) and even had an exclusive opportunity to have Max paint their portraits. Similarly, Princess hosted marine life artist Wyland on Ruby Princess, where he entertained guests with a "live art event," during which he painted a mother and baby dolphin scene on the bottom of the ship's pool.

Oceania Cruises approaches art enrichment in a similar way -- especially aboard Marina and Riviera, both of which feature artists-in-residence at the Artist Loft. Well-known artisans, from painters and photographers to crafters, man this onboard enrichment center and offer master classes to interested cruisers. For example, photographer Curtis Hustace spent 90 days sailing the Caribbean and Panama Canal aboard Marina. At the end of his residency, he offered for sale a special DVD of all the images he took during the voyage.

Celebrity's newest ship, Celebrity Silhouette, also features an Art Studio, which can be found near the entrance to the Lawn Club. The space is used for art demonstrations and classes on painting, drawing and other arts.

Onboard boutiques: Oasis of the Seas isn't the only Royal Caribbean ship that places emphasis on onboard art adventures. Allure of the Seas was the first RCI ship to house a shop dedicated to the work of Brazilian pop culture artist Romero Britto. A second Britto concept store -- selling giftware, decor, collectibles and original Britto works -- was recently installed aboard Freedom of the Seas. Guests appreciate this low-key way to get to know the artist's work and make purchases without having to participate in auctions.

On the luxury lines, onboard boutiques may occasionally showcase and sell regional art to highlight a particular itinerary. For example, when sailing Alaska's Inside Passage, some boutiques may add Native American bone carvings or painted pottery. While visiting the Italian Riviera, regional art may include delicate blown-glass sculptures, and in Southeast Asia, silk wall hangings are popular. Most often, these pieces of art are made by local artists and craftsman and are meaningful keepsakes.

The Art Auction Controversy

So, why have art auctions been shrouded in controversy as of late, leading passengers and cruise lines to lose interest? Lawsuits -- the most serious of which allege the sale of inauthentic art and inflated appraisals -- have been brought against several galleries doing business at sea, including Park West. Park West responded to one of those actions with a countersuit alleging defamation. (The verdict in that particular case -- in favor of the defendant -- was thrown out by the judge and will ultimately be tried again.)

Beyond the lawsuits, passengers who've purchased art on various ships have complained of long delays in delivery of the art, especially in the case of West End Gallery; art arriving in the wrong, or damaged, frame; and shill or phantom bidding during the actual auction. Many auction winners later determined that they overpaid for their artwork.

These complaints have made other cruisers wary of the entire art auction business and are, in part, why some cruise lines have cancelled their auction programs.

Auctions themselves have a partylike atmosphere with free-flowing Champagne and the chance to win a piece of art. The actual bidding process can be fascinating to watch, especially if you've never been to an auction before. It's easy to get caught up in the merriment, and some cruisers -- those new to the art world or veteran collectors -- can get carried away.

Starting an Art Collection

Art auctions at sea, despite being less popular than they once were, are still a well-worn method for buying art onboard some ships, as well as being fun and informative. What's more, they can be an excellent entree in the world of art collecting.

As with any other major-ticket purchase, there are some "best practices" cruisers can adopt when buying art onboard.

If you think you might want to begin an art collection and plan to acquire your first piece at sea, due diligence is up to you. Arm yourself with as much information as you can before embarkation. Here are some strategies to help you out.

Tip 1: Research Categories of Artwork and Artists

If you're a newbie to the art world, familiarize yourself with the categories of artwork that you can purchase on a cruise ship (or on land, for that matter). Original works of art are hand-signed by the artists. Limited editions, which are technically original works of art since the artist typically oversees the replication process, are hand-signed by the artist and numbered.

You may purchase art done in a variety of media, including paintings; serigraphs, silkscreen prints of original works of art (Andy Warhol popularized serigraphy in the United States); the four-color printmaking method called lithography; etchings; small sculptures; and movie animation cells. The pieces offered at auction may be one-of-a-kind originals (most often the case with paintings) or limited-edition reproductions. Reproductions are most valuable when the artist selects the medium himself or herself and oversees the replication process. Limited editions that are created after an artist's death are often less valuable, especially if no one authorized from the artist's estate oversees the process.

When it comes to prints, make sure you're buying an actual serigraph or lithograph and not mere "poster art" that is printed using lesser-quality reproduction methods.

As Pablo Ruiz Picasso once said, "It is not enough to know an artist's works. One must also know when he did them, why, how, in what circumstances...." Learn about your favorite artists by reviewing their catalogue raisonnes -- reference books, also sometimes digitized online, which are definitive lists of all works by a particular artist. (For example, you can view the Etchings catalogue raisonne for James McNeill Whistler here.) The information contained in the catalogue will help you identify particular pieces of art. Each entry will tell you the title of the piece, medium, dimensions, provenance (list of former owners) and information about how many prints were made and if any modifications occurred.

So, whose work is onboard? Cruise ship art runs the gamut from contemporary artists such as Thomas Kinkade and Anatole Krasnyansky to masters like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Rembrandt. You'll also see lots of Erte, Chagall, Escher and Goya works on cruise ships. Works by current pop artists like Peter Max and Romero Britto are also featured in addition to animation cells from studios like Disney, Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera and Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Immerse yourself in the experience by attending onboard art seminars, talking with the auctioneer and visiting the gallery several times before you buy. The more you learn about the art world, the more actionable intelligence you'll have to draw upon when you do decide that the time is right to buy a piece of art to start your own collection.

Tip 2: Check Authenticity

The pieces available at auction on the high seas are purported to be original works and limited editions from the artists as advertised. Auction houses will provide a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) for each piece in their inventory. The COA should describe the work in detail. Review the document to determine what entity authenticated the work. For example, Claude Picasso and Maya Widmaier Picasso are the definitive word on the authenticity of any piece by Pablo Picasso.

Here's where controversy rears its head again since many believe that a vast majority of COAs aren't worth the paper they are printed on. The artist or publisher, in the case of limited editions, should sign the Certificate of Authenticity. The artist's agent, a respected art expert or an established dealer may also sign the COA. Your familiarity with the art world and the signers on the COA will help you determine if the certificate is actually worthwhile.

Appraisals are another point of contention. If you're on a cruise ship, it's not likely that you can get a third-party appraisal of a piece of art. The gallery will tell you what they have appraised the piece for, but you should consider that number with a grain of salt -- especially if you're not familiar with the artist and what his or her pieces have sold for in the past. Go to the ship's Internet cafe, go online to do some research, and call a gallery back home for advice.

Tip 3: You Set the Value of a Work of Art

If you're new to the art world, you should not view pieces purchased at sea as an investment vehicle. Buying art on a ship should be about selecting pieces that speak to you on an emotional level, and you should set your budget accordingly.

When purchasing art from a gallery, expect to pay a mark-up of anywhere between 50 to 100 percent. When it comes to the purchase price, you need to ask yourself, "Do I love this work of art for this price?" If you say "yes," then the piece is worth that amount of money. Remember that a commodity only has resale value when someone else wants to buy it from you. If you are in love with a painting, it is worth whatever you're willing to pay for it. That doesn't mean anyone else will pay that amount. Don't get caught up in how much you could make if you resell the work.

Tip 4: Prepare Against Buyer's Remorse

If you're the type who has experienced buyer's remorse in the past or are worried that you might regret your purchase, do yourself a favor and explore the auction house's return/exchange policy. Park West, for example, has a 40-40 return policy. As explained by Goldstein, "If later on down the road one of our customers decides that an artwork is just not right for them, we allow them 40 days after they've received their artwork to return it should they change their mind. We refund 85 percent of the artwork price and send them a bidder-credit for the other 15 percent of their purchase that they can use at another one of our events. We even have an exchange policy that extends a full 40 months from date of purchase."

Tip 5: Buy What You Love

In the end, you should simply bid on art that you fall in love with -- no matter who the artist is or what the resale value may be.

Helen, an attorney in Orange Country, California, who has purchased art while sailing with Royal Caribbean, said she buys whatever catches her eye and will be a nice reminder of the trip. Her advice? "Buy what speaks to you and is in your budget. There are no bargains here, just emotional attachments in my view."

Park West's Goldstein agrees with Helen: "People should always, without a doubt, buy what they like. The majority of our clients find that their artwork provides them with a multitude of other benefits that far outweigh any potential for financial gain. You buy artwork because it makes you happy, because it makes you think, because it brightens your day, because you enjoy the interpersonal bonds created when discussing the artwork with your friends, because it may be an extension of your personality for years to come, because you admire the imagination and craftsmanship of the artist, because the artwork's history is invigorating, or because there is something simply remarkable about knowing that the work will likely live beyond your time on this planet."