To this day I remain obsessed with the TV show The Love Boat. Airing from 1977 to 1987 and repeated on daytime television through-out the 1990s, the show took place aboard the Pacific Princess cruise ship.
Every week, celebrity guest stars would board a 2 day/2 night cruise to Acapulco and quickly find themselves caught up in all manner of hilarious and romantic shenanigans.
What I loved about the show was its comforting predictability. No matter how serious the problem, every episode of The Love Boat ended with the characters returning to LA with a sun tan, a sombrero, a “fixed” relationship and a completed character arc.
And the theme tune was BANGIN’. (Which for some reason You Tube won’t let me share. )
Needless to say, when I took my first cruise I had high expectations:
Sadly, my trip never reached the dizzying, polyester-clad heights of a Love Boat episode. There was no shuffleboard, no Isaac the bartender giving me “finger-guns” and, perhaps most tragically, no Charo.
There was also no romance.
Which was odd, as I was in a relationship at the time.
Instead, my then-boyfriend decided that being together as a couple meant spending a lot of time apart. And, consequently, he would disappear without explanation for long stretches of the trip.
Left literally and metaphorically ‘at sea’, I did what I always do in times of emotional strife…
and then I went to the ship’s art auction.
Often held on the final Sea Day of the trip, cruise art auctions are (or were before 2020) an enormously lucrative business operating on more than 100 ships and held 1200 times a month. They are also mired in controversy and appear to operate on the assumption that no one on a cruise knows anything about art.
Being alone and self conscious I decided to watch the event from the safety of the balcony above. That way, I could see how it all worked before deciding to take part.
It started small, with only about 20 attendees lured to the event with the promise of free champagne. After registering and receiving their auction “paddles”, they plopped down into their seats, drank their complimentary bubbles and waited to be impressed.
I don’t think any of them actually intended to buy art, but they did. And lots of it.
This was down to, what I thought, were some fairly obvious sales/manipulation tactics:
- keep the alcohol flowing to loosen inhibitions and impair critical thinking
- heighten excitement with prizes, giveaways and discounts
- toss out some impressive sounding buzzwords like: hand–embellished lithograph, giclee print, limited-edition Disney serigraph cel
- keep things moving quickly so no one has time to think
- And, most importantly, make sure you are so far out at sea that no one can Google anything.
By following these steps, the auction company quickly turned a motley group of sunburnt, slouching cruise ship passengers into an enthusiastic and captive art market.
As the auction continued, its size swelled. New attendees looked to the early birds, now drunk and bidding on everything, and fearing they were missing out, started bidding too.
What they were bidding on didn’t even matter.
At one point, they were bidding blind, during fast-paced “Mystery” rounds in what had become more like a game show than an auction. The whole event was people-watching gold.
I knew I needed to investigate some of the more questionable things being said during the auction so I quickly scrawled down some notes on a napkin to look into when I got home.
Turns out, I was right to be cautious.
Much of the art claiming to be by a particular “pop artist” wasn’t even painted by the guy. Instead, a language loophole allowed the auction house to call it authentic even though it was most likely produced in an art mill by a low paid intern.
Also, the paintings you bid on are NOT the paintings you receive. Your paintings, which are copies of those on board, are delivered about 2 weeks after you get home. Which means you don’t even get to carry your “authentic” Disney animation cel off the boat!
Furthermore, many of those so-called “paintings” are, in the case of giclee prints, ink-jet photocopies. Which is the art-world equivalent of jazzing up cheese on toast by calling it Welsh Rarebit.
By the time the auction wound down, most of the participants were drunk, in debt and hoarding more art than the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, I was left wondering how such obvious and manipulative sales tactics could have worked so well on a group of mature adults.
Then, I remembered. I’d been watching from a distance.
And some things, be they scams, bad relationships or the paintings of Monet are better seen from a distance.
RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING: