Taking Art to the People – Dealer’s auctions on land, at sea help grow business

Published July 19, 2007 | By TOM WALSH, Columnist for The Detroit Free Press

Albert Scaglione, Detroit Free PressA fine piece of art is whatever the purchasing public says it is, whether a Picasso print, a Peter Max painting or a big photo of Muhammad Ali signed by the former boxing champ.

It’s in that populist spirit that Albert Scaglione has grown Park West Gallery from a small Southfield art dealer into a global juggernaut with 1,000 employees and contractors who conduct art auctions on land, and on over 70 cruise ships.

Next up: a TV infomercial, tentatively dubbed “Park West Presents,” that may air later this year on cable or satellite TV channels.

We’re making money all over the world and bringing it to Detroit,” Scaglione told me last week, walking through his 63,000-square-foot Southfield gallery as a private auction was being held. Doing the bidding were some of Scaglione’s best customers, 30 couples whom Park West had brought to town, put up at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel for four nights and treated to a Detroit River cruise plus dinners in Greektown and at the Detroit Zoo.

Scaglione, 68, founded Park West in 1969 in smaller digs on 9 Mile and moved to the current location on Northwestern Highway in 1980. He grew the business steadily, forging relationships with contemporary artists Peter Max, Itzchak Tarkay and others who occasionally appear at Park West for special exhibitions.

By 1994, Park West’s annual revenue had grown to $20 million, but then sales really exploded with the surging popularity of art auctions on major cruise lines. Park West is the dominant player today in Caribbean cruise line art auctions.

Scaglione said Park West’s annual revenue is now “rapidly approaching $500 million,” with 20% to 25% coming from cruise auctions. The firm also does art restoration, consulting and framing from locations in Southfield, Wixom and Florida.

Employment has grown from 150 people in the early 1990s to 1,000 today, about half full-time Park West people and the rest contractors such as artists and cruise line auctioneers.

Park West’s aggressive marketing of art to the public has rocked the boat in the fine art world, once the province of the super-rich and museum curators. The days are long gone, his Web site says, when proclamations about the worthiness of art were handed down by churches, kings, museums, curators or critics. The digital age of computers has allowed an informed public to drive changes in art forms.

That said, Scaglione noted it is important that Park West, like any art dealer or auctioneer, maintain its integrity in a business where scandals often erupt over fakes.

We’ve never had to make a single refund based on authenticity,” he said.

Scaglione said he was hesitant at first to jump into the cruise auction business because of concern about Park West’s reputation.

I was skeptical. I thought it looked to be too unregulated, too odd, not a serious art market,” he said. And he figured that vacationers at sea would be unlikely to make major purchases.

He was wrong. The business took off.

I never imagined individual items selling for as much $500,000,” he said. “Now we regularly sell items for over $50,000, $100,000 on the cruise ships.”

Park West runs auctions on many major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival.

Park West has national brand recognition now, he said, thanks to its exposure to tens of thousands of Caribbean vacationers on cruise ships.

Scaglione, who lives with wife Mitsie in Farmington Hills, could locate Park West anyplace in the world now. But he’s not going anywhere.

I see Detroit as full of opportunity,” he said. “When I bring customers and artists here, they can’t believe our city. It’s on a beautiful river next to a foreign country. We have one of the most beautiful suburban areas in the country. We have a great art museum.”

He would go on and on, Scaglione the super-salesman, if he didn’t consciously make an effort to stop himself.

I talk too fast,” he said, “so I try to slow down, talk more softly.”

Park West Gallery art auction

THE SERIES: This column is part of an occasional series about Michigan businesses experiencing strong growth. If you know of such a business, contact Tom Walsh at 313-223-4430 or twalsh@freepress.com. 

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