Cruise liner's art auctions leave investors all at sea

PASSENGERS on P&O cruises sometimes spend up big at the on-board art auctions. Back on land though, some have found their purchases to be worth a fraction of what they paid.

Jason Hall was holidaying on P&O ship Pacific Dawn in January when a hand-embellished lithograph by American Alexandra Nechita caught his eye.

He said a representative from on-board art sales company British Australian Art told him the recommended retail price was $50,000. It was beyond his budget until the auctioneer announced he could sell it for as little as $12,500.

''The auctioneer said Nechita was the new Picasso,'' said Mr Hall, from Sydney. ''He said it was a great investment and the value would go up … I didn't question it. I thought P&O wouldn't have anything dodgy on board.''

He spent more than $20,000 on prints, including $14,465 on Nechita's Riding The Waves. Back in Sydney, he approached art consultant David Hulme for a valuation and was told Nechita had almost no profile among art experts. Records on the database artprice.com showed that her prints had sold for far lower prices. The most expensive lithograph in the site's records sold for $US1500.

Mr Hulme believes the cruise auctions take advantage of inexperienced buyers. ''They have a captive audience with no opportunity to get independent advice,'' he said.

For P&O, British Australian Art's presence on the ship is a revenue source, though its financial arrangements with the art company are commercial in-confidence.

In a statement, a spokesman said P&O would ensure a full investigation of any complaints.

''We would naturally provide all possible assistance to passengers to help resolve any issues they might have with British Australian Art.''

British Australian Art, which is not registered as a company in Australia, is owned by a Florida-based company, International Art Galleries, LLC. The registered manager, Ira Shore, did not respond to The Age's phone calls. A staff member referred The Age to the company's Melbourne lawyer, David Boyall of Mason Sier Turnbull.

In a statement, Mr Boyall said company policy prohibited auctioneers from making reference to artworks as investments.

''BAA will thoroughly investigate any allegations that its staff have breached its written guidelines for the benefit of purchasers.''

The company said there had been ''very few'' cases of buyers asking for refunds because of dissatisfaction with the value of a work.

Of the two such cases in the past three months, it said one was refunded promptly and the other would be refunded once the necessary documentation was complete.

Sales on the high seas present jurisdictional difficulties for courts.

Andy Schmulow, a lecturer at Victoria University's faculty of business and law, said such sales were unlikely to be covered by the jurisdiction of Australian courts.

''I wouldn't be buying anything other than a cocktail on the high seas,'' he said.

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