Low Art on the High Seas

Facebook/Royal Caribbean

Amy Chozick has a piece in the New York Times about the mental decline of pop artist Peter Max and how his son has allegedly been exploiting him since the onset of his dementia a few years ago. The artist would enter a room above the Shun Lee restaurant on the Upper West Side where lesser artists were "churning out art in the Max aesthetic: cheery, polychrome, wide-brushstroke kaleidoscopes on canvas."

Mr. Max would be instructed to hold out his hand, and for hours, he would sign the art as if it were his own, grasping a brush and scrawling Max. The arrangement, which continued until earlier this year, was described to the New York Times by seven people who witnessed it.

Chozick delves into the artist's relationship with Park West Gallery, which does quite a bit of business on the high seas. "The majority of its revenue comes from boozy auctions held on cruise ships—and on the water, nobody sells like Mr. Max," she writes.

[F]or the 24 million people who take a cruise each year, Mr. Max is a star. This is an alternate, at-sea universe in which his works are the pinnacle of sophisticated collecting. Maxes can be found in Park West showrooms on all of the major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian. They promote the Park West auctions as an exhilarating onboard activity with complimentary Champagne—and take a cut of as much as 40 percent of sales, according to industry analysts.

I can attest to the appeal of these auctions because I sat through one in 2006. A friend of mine was getting married in Bermuda and we all got there on board Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas (a ship that makes a cameo in Max Brooks’s World War Z). On our first full day on the Atlantic, however, we hit a massive storm. At one point, a 35-foot wave slammed the hull, knocking the television in my cabin right off the shelf. Most everyone—my wife and I included—battled seasickness the whole day.

But a friend of mine with a penchant for buying art told me he was going to spend the afternoon at an auction on the main deck—plus there’d be free Champagne (or at least sparkling wine).

I remember sinking into my chair, glancing out at the gray sky and all those white caps, not wanting to move. The charming auctioneer from New Zealand proved to be a welcome distraction. He told us about Park West Gallery and all the deals that awaited us.

It’s true, even then, there were a fair number of Peter Maxes, including signed lithographs. There were also lesser known artists like Andre Bardet and Alex Pauker. The bidding wasn't anything like you'd see in the movies. You wouldn’t find these attendees—clad in shorts, tank tops, and flip flops (myself included)—at Sotheby's or Christie's. There were a handful of active participants. The rest of us were merely curious, in need of some bubbly, trying to forget the ocean swells.

At one point a cruiser bid on a Jim Davis print of Garfield. There were no other takers so he lucked out (it was, after all, a Garfield). But just as popular as Peter Max—maybe even more—was Thomas Kinkade, the so-called Painter of Light. I won't speak ill of the dead. Let's just say I had forgotten his name so on Google I typed in "cheesy landscape artist" and up he came!

Like Max, Kinkade made a fortune mass-marketing his work. And cruise ships are the perfect venue. You’ve got a captive audience wandering the same corridors day in, day out. These folks won’t be looking to buy a Warhol original, but a Kinkade lithograph of a pastoral scene in winter? Sounds like a deal, along with that bottomless booze package.

After the first hour, I mustered the courage to make a bid. At the end of the day we walked away with three modestly priced paintings that still hang inside our home. Looking at them always reminds me of that wedding cruise. Which ended in divorce.