Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Milking the Art Market

Peter Max in his studio around 2014 featuring NCL's Breakaway for which he was commissioned to design the bow decorations utilizing a New York City theme.
For more than twenty-five years, my wife and I have been avid sea cruisers. We first ventured out for four nights aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's (NCL) ancient Sunward II back in 1988. (NCL had only two ships at the time). She wasn't huge by today's standards, a mere 486 feet long, built around 1971 and, until recently still in service, though having undergone several name changes and refurbishments along the way. It was aboard that ship that I first encountered Park West, a sea-going art galley specializing in limited edition prints and original oils by lesser-known artists. I've observed the company and their way of doing business on virtually every cruise since then. They display flashy paintings on easels in their leased space aboard their host ship and in some cases other public venues. They present art history seminars (such as the entire history of art in one half-hour PowerPoint nutshell). But their real bread and butter income stems from free champagne art auctions touting the investment potential of overpriced limited edition prints. "Let the buyer beware." Very often the star of these seaborne art happenings has been the psychedelic Pop artist from the 1960s and thereafter, Peter Max.
Peter Max Self-portrait, ca 1970s, now the
cover of his autobiography published in 2013.
This is not primarily about Peter Max however, but those (Park West among them) who continue to milk his style and popularity to the tune of several million dollars a year long after the artist has ceased to paint. If you've recently purchased a Peter Max original painting, likely on a cruise ship, I have some bad news: It was far more likely to have been done by Joe Nobody, and only signed by Max, who is suffering from dementia. Max, whose work was once a ubiquitous part of 60s counterculture (he did the cover of the Beatles' Yellow Sub-marine album) is now allegedly being manipulated to sign work as if it were his own, when in fact it's being produced by other artists, then sold by the Park West Gallery, a Southfield-based commercial art concern that sells his works primarily on cruise ships.

The Park West routine varies only slightly from one cruise line to another.
For the past five years or more, twice a week, Peter Max (born in 1937 and now 81 years of age) thin as a rail, with a sparse mustache, sometimes having little idea about where or who he was, arrived at his "studio." Inside, he saw numerous painters--some recruited off the street and paid minimum wage--churning out art in the Max aesthetic: cheery, polychrome, wide-brushstroke kaleidoscopes on canvas. Max was instructed to hold out his hand and for hours he signed the art as if it were his own, grasping a brush and scrawling "Max." The arrangement, which continued until this year, was has been described by several witnesses. While many successful, prolific painters use assistants to stretch canvases or do simple background work, in recent years, the Peter Max art factory has gone far beyond this threshold.

Degenerative Peter Max works from recent years.
In 1997, the artist expanded a partnership with Park West Gallery. The majority of its revenue comes from boozy auctions held on cruise ships. On the water at least, nobody sells like Max. For the 24 million people who take a cruise each year, 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, their cut being as much as 40% of sales, according to many art marketing experts.
Milking the Peter Max style to the tune of $93-million.

Adam Max, the son.
Max, received a diagnosis several years ago of symptoms related to Alzheimer’s Disease. He now suffers from advanced dementia. Friends say he has not painted seriously in four years. He does not know what year it is. He spends afternoons curled up in a red velvet lounger in his New York apartment watching the Hudson River. Though unable to create original work, his paintings continue to sell as new pieces on Park West cruises. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Park West by disgruntled customers who have purchased artwork and later found it to be either a forgery or some other significant departure from what they were told when they bought it. Park West cus-tomers complained that they were led to believe they were buying “one of a kind” Max works that would appreciate in value, only to return to land (and reliable Wi-Fi) where they learn that the internet was glutted with similar works. One cruise-ship salesman is quoted as saying the that dementia had made Max "even more creative and prolific."

The earliest Peter Max flag painting I could find dates from 1960.

Peter Max and his second wife,
Mary, 2015.
In 2012 Max's studio was on the brink of bankruptcy as he struggled to create. But in seven years it has since made more than $93-million in sales, including more than $30-million in net profit in 2018 Witnesses said Adam Max, the artist's son, hired assistant painters to mimic father's work and that these imitations were being sold as originals to increase studio profits. The sordid tale doesn't end there. Adam claimed Max's wife, Mary, was physically abusing him, while she alleged that he had kidnapped his father to keep his studio scheme running. Ghost painters, kidnapping, hired goons, attempted murder by sneaking large Brazil nuts into smoothies--These are just some of the wild accusations that have come out of lawsuits launched by those closest to Max. Just recently, Max's daughter, Libra, has booted Adam from day to day management of the company and wants to return her father's studio to its 'original' vision. The lawsuits have now been settled or dismissed. Max's son and daughter were each given 40 percent of the company, while Max himself owned the remaining 20 percent. Strangely enough, Park West continues to maintain that each Max sold on every ship is unique. For all the controversy, their sales haven't taken a hit and Max's studio (known as ALP Inc) is doing better financially than it has in years.

Iconic Peter Max from 1999.


No comments:

Post a Comment