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British American Auctions on cruise ships: scams or bargains?

Independent travel tips for the professional at Leisure

December 2009

With the cruise lines reeling from massive class action lawsuits against cruise ship art auctions, and allegations of massive fraud, it's no surprise to see new players enter this market. 

The offerings of British American art auctions is the same types of art that you find on most cruise ships, mostly moderately valued �reproductions prints�, including the commonplace �modern� Rembrandt woodcuts made from the original blocks, printed by the boatload and sold for thousands of dollars each (a huge scam, in my opinion).  Like all cruise ship art auctions most of the �art� is reproduction lithographs and prints, rarely any one-of-a-kind art.


I received my auctioneer�s license more than ten years ago, and I have been an eBay Powerseller, and I know every trick in the book that is used by dishonest auctioneers.  When reviewing their terms and conditions I found several areas of concern:

  • We are not crooks � I found it strange that in the cruise ship TV marketing promotions for British American auctions they emphasized their six month return policy instead of talking about how great their art was.  However, this may be in response to consumer wariness after the publication of the damning NY Times article about the perils of cruise ship art auctions.

  • Inconsistent return policy � The British American auctioneer told me that they offer a six month, no questioned asked return policy, yet their brochure stated that they only accept cancellations before the artwork is framed and shipped.  Beware, the terms and conditions in your sales agreement will likely negate any oral promises made by the auctioneer.

  •  Lawsuit details - The first thing that I found fishy about British American auctions was that the terms and conditions had explicit details about what happens in case of a lawsuit, something that I would not expect to see from an auction house that ensures customer satisfaction with a six month return policy.

  •  Shill bidding permitted - The British American art auction brochure also states that they reserve the right to �shill bid�, a practice where the auctioneer will pull phony bids out of thin air, pretending that there is a competing bidder, in order to drive up the bid up to an undisclosed reserve price.  Please note that shill bidding is legal and it is a common practice to protect the auction house from selling art too low.

I asked the auctioneer about their shill bidding policy, and he told me that shilling is not an issue because he discloses the reserve price, a statement that I later found out not to be entirely true.  (According to the British American terms, the reserve price is �then minimum price below which such Artwork or Collectable will not be sold�.    In other words, the reserve is an immutable, fixed price.

Not a bad deal! 

I asked the auctioneer to disclose the reserve price of an autographed Norman Rockwell reproduction print (from a series of 200).  He told me that the reserve price was $4,500, but then waffled, and said that he might be able to go as low as $4,000, perhaps even lower if it went to auction.  At one point he also used the phrase �to be honest with you�.  Like my Dad used to say �An honest man does not feel the need to remind you how honest he is�.  But despite their poor choice of wording, I researched the prices of signed Rockwell prints and found their price to be within reasonable limits.

I also witnessed a British American auctioneer using the old �I�ll try to get a lower price from my boss� scam, a favorite of used car salesman!  One woman was interested in a piece and I overheard the auction say that it had a reserve of $8,000 but he might be able to negotiate with his supervisor to get approval to lower the reserve price to $5,500.

Caveat Emptor 

I did not witness any British American art auctions or art sales, so I cannot comment on their actual sales practices, and I have no idea if British American art auction customers were scammed or if they got a great deal. 

If you are considering purchasing a work by any cruise ship art auctions, remember that cruise ship art is not unique, it�s a commodity, and you can look-up the prices on the web.  Use due diligence and spend $30 on the ship internet to see what the same piece sales for on eBay or other auction houses.  I got the impression that they are ready and willing to bargain with you. 

As I noted, I checked their price on a signed Norman Rockwell print and found it to be within the realm of reasonable prices.




Note: The opinions expressed on these pages are the sole opinion of Donald K. Burleson and do not reflect the opinions of Burleson Enterprises Inc. or any of its subsidiaries.

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