Sarasota, Fla., real estate agent David Bouverat resisted buying art for most of his cruise. But he ventured out after dinner toward the end of his Baltic Sea voyage with a few drinks in him and viewed art for sale by surrealists Joan Miro and Salvador Dali.
He ended up buying two works on a two-week cruise aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines' Constellation in June 2007. Bouverat said he was told the print and painting he purchased from Park West Gallery were worth about $15,000 apiece. He paid a total of $20,520.
Once on land, he says he learned the Miro print was almost worthless, akin to poster art. The other piece was a painting of a clown playing a guitar by Anatole Krasnyansky. Bouverat said Krasnyansky appears to work exclusively in a stable of artists for Southfield, Mich.-based Park West, which bills itself as "America's premier art dealer."
Now he hopes to spark a class action lawsuit against the company. He claims Celebrity allowed him to become prey to aggressive Park West salesmen aboard the ship. The salesmen, he claims, greatly exaggerated the value of the prints he purchased.
"There was a very hard sales pitch put on to me," Bouverat said. "I felt that they were trying to sell me the artwork, but they were also playing on the emotions to convince me these were good investments."
Bouverat said he bought the artworks based on Park West's representation that it had been appraised. It didn't hurt that he was aboard a prestigious cruise line. Bouverat felt Celebrity would never have an unscrupulous vendor aboard and noted the cruise line endorsed destination shops, guaranteeing the Royal Caribbean Cruises subsidiary would intercede if there is a problem with any of the businesses.
"I felt the same policy pretty much also applied to the art auction," he said. "I am very disturbed about this. When I go on a cruise I entrust my well-being to the cruise line."
Celebrity Cruise Lines said it will help passengers in any dispute with Park West, Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said. "Should a case arise where a customer is not satisfied, we work with Park West to resolve the matter in a manner that is mutually agreeable to all parties," Martinez said in a statement. "Their increasing use of third-party appraisals of their art should further improve customer confidence in the overall auction experience."
Much is made of the appraisals in Bouverat's lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in April and removed to federal court in May -- calling them "false and deceptive statement of fact." It turned out the appraisals for Bouverat's art was conducted by Park West, not an independent assessment.
A Park West Gallery spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, issued a statement saying,"We believe this purported class action lawsuit is entirely without merit." On the subject of appraisals, he said, "Our staff uses market-recognized tools, including reviews, by a network of accredited independent appraisers who adhere to the uniform standards of professional appraisal practices to appraise our artwork."
Attorney Joshua M. Entin, a partner with Rosen Switkes & Entin in Miami Beach, represents Bouverat along with Shawn Khorrami and Matt Bailey of Los Angeles' Khorrami Pollard & Abir. Entin said Bouverat is far from the only Park West victim.
"We believe this has happened to a significant number of other people, and we believe this matter is perfect for a class action to get Park West Gallery to stop this conduct," he said. The lawsuit alleges Park West violated Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Other claims include breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Khorrami said he is in touch with numerous Park West clients and has filed a similar lawsuit in California. Even though Celebrity is not named as a defendant, Khorrami said he feels the cruise company is culpable. "Our investigation shows they get some sort of financial benefit," he said. "They get money from Park West, and we believe they should be held responsible since they are seeing a financial benefit."
Robert Burlington, a partner in Coffey Burlington in Miami, is one of three attorneys from his firm representing Park West. He said he had nothing to add to a June 17 dismissal motion."The insurmountable obstacle to plaintiff's case -- from which he cannot run -- is that Park West delivered exactly what it promised him on exactly the terms agrees," according to the motion prepared by firm attorney Paul Schwiep. "Nowhere does plaintiff allege that the appraisal Park West provided was wrong or even that the artwork he purchased is worth less than the appraisal provided."
Park West is hardly a fly-by-night outfit. The company just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and its annual revenue is reported to be $300 million on sales of 300,000 pieces of art sold each year.
Park West doesn't tolerate criticism well, as former paralegal Theresa Frank has found. She is the CEO of Phoenix-based Fine Art Registry, which aims to license artists' works and was sued for defamation after posting complaints from Park West customers.
Frank said she has worked with more than 150 people trying to obtain refunds from Park West, and those who get them often have to sign confidentiality agreements. Her Web site offers tips to novice art buyers on cruise ships.
"Someone needs to open their eyes," she said.
Frank disagrees somewhat with the strategy taken by Bouverat's attorneys. She said it's not appraisals they should go after but authentication standards.
Jonathan Schwartz, an attorney with Southfield, Mich., firm Kaufman Payton & Chapa, is defending Frank in Park West's defamation suit. He said the company's strategy is to litigate until opponents run out of money."These lawsuits are really SLAPP lawsuits. They are really meant to intimidate and silence legitimate criticism," he said. "The tactics they use are very harsh. Terry has the evidence. She is a lone voice in the wilderness, and she is inspiring people to come forward about this."
Back in Florida, Bouverat said he is more than willing to fight Park West. "I feel ripped off," he said.
Bouverat said it's time to put an end to inflated cruise ship art prices. He said there needs to be more disclosure of the true value of such works."Something needs to be done," he said. "Passengers are a captive audience on a cruise ship. There are multiple auctions. People are drinking and having a good time. Unless they are seasoned art collectors, I don't think the average person knows what they are being sold."