Thursday, May 4, 2017

Vincent Price Sells Art at Sears (Yes You Read That Correctly)

I spend a good amount of time searching for obscure videos on YouTube, and I always find surprises.  Recently, I found an old commercial for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (a museum I know well) featuring legendary screen actor Vincent Price.  It’s an interesting snapshot of the museum at the time, and after walking through the galleries Price stops in next to the large reclining figure by Henry Moore, a piece that’s long been off public view, most likely because of incidents like this.

After watching the video and searching a little more, I found that Price had recorded similar commercials for other museums in the U.S. Apart from being a little time capsule of the early 1980s, I was left with the question of why Vincent Price had been chosen in the first place.  Price was primarily known as a horror movie actor, and I really didn’t know much about his connections to art before researching this post.  I found out that he did, and it’s kind of an odd one.  He collected art throughout his life and in the early 1960s he was approached by the department store chain Sears and asked to collaborate on a project to sell fine art in their stores.  Price himself was responsible for choosing and buying the thousands of paintings and prints that would encompass the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art at Sears.

The most important video available that really helps to understand the relationship Price had with Sears is an instructional video created to train employees on the art that would be for sale.  In the film, Price himself admits that people may be skeptical about buying fine art at Sears, and he makes a point of separating what’s being sold here from the cheap, printed- on-cardboard images people might be used to.  This video goes a long way towards explaining what exactly Sears was selling.  He takes time to showcase some of the pieces and discus their merits.  I’ve identified the work and artist where possible.

The first piece Price highlights is a print by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige.  After doing a little digging, I was able to see that it’s a print from Hiroshige’s collection called The 53 Stations of the Takaido. Specifically, it’s #39- Chiryu:


As Price describes it, he refers to it as one of Hiroshige’s famous “views.”  When I heard this, I immediately thought of “36 Views of Mount Fuji” (of which The Great Wave Off Kanagawa) is the most famous image.  But, the views of Mount Fuji are prints made by Hokusai, not Hiroshige.  I can’t be too hard on Price for seemingly confusing the two artists, since lumping Hokusai and Hiroshige together unfortunately is fairly common.  Google “Hiroshige print” and images of Hokusai’s Great Wave are returned.  Moving on.

The next painting highlighted was one that stumped my.  Price says it’s a French artist who’s name sounds like “Boboline.”  I tried several spellings and was able to find nothing.


The drawing Price highlights after Boboline (Baubelline? Boboleine? Your guess is as good as mine) is an interesting one.  It’s by Heinrich Kley and appears to depict a satyr dancing with a woman.  Kley was a German illustrator and painter who was well regarded by Walt Disney, who was an avid collector of his work.  Kley’s illustrations (especially those of anthropomorphic animals) were a huge influence on the design of Disney’s Fantasia, released near the end of Kley’s life.

 wasn’t able to find the exact drawing that’s highlighted in the Sears video, but I was able to find part of it.  Searching for Kley images on Google is difficult because a lot of what comes up isn’t by Kley but is by people he influenced (Disney concept artists, other illustrators, etc.).  But a winery used a Kley drawing as a wine bottle label and it’s pretty clear that it’s the same drawing seen in the video (minus the figure on the right). 


 Next Price shows off two artists who I was able to find more information on but I wasn’t able to find images of the exact paintings shown here.  The first is an Italian artist Price calls Frederico Gentillini but his name was actually Franco Gentillini.  He also points out a piece by an artist named Gustav Likan.  Likan taught in Chicago, so he might have been familiar to those who worked at the Sears headquarters.

After showing off these two artists, Price gets into some of the more interesting pieces on display in the film.  The first of these is a print by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  To go off on a slight tangent here, one really fascinating aspect of old films like this is because they record the way people spoke and communicated that may sound a little antiquated today.  This is best captured he when Price refers to Toulouse-Lautrec as “really one of the extraordinary people.”  But, I digress.



The print at hand is called Por Toi! (For You!) (Desire Dihou with his Bassoon), and was originally printed in 1893.  If the print shown in the video was legit, it could be worth a lot of money today.  Other copies have sold for as much as $14,000.   I say “if” because prints can be problematic if the printing blocks or plates were used without the artist’s authorization of after the artist’s death.  I don’t know if that’s been an issue with this particular print, but prints seen later on are potentially problematic (keep reading).

The next piece seen is a small print of a bird and insect Price identifies as The Young Entomologist.  Googling that title or looking for similar images yielded nothing.

Sorry little guy, I don't know who made you.
What comes next are probably the most problematic pieces Price presents.  They are two prints by Goya from his famous series of etchings called Los Caprichos.  The lower one is easy to identify: it’s no. 39 in the series, entitled Hasta su Abuelo (And So Was His Grandfather), first published in 1799.


The upper one is hard to identify since it’s never shown in close-up, but I think it’s no. 47, Obsequio al maestro (A Gift for the Master):


Unscrupulous publishers churned out prints like this long after Goya’s death, and even though they used the original printing plates, they did so without Goya’s permission.  This flooded the market with unauthorized editions that degraded in quality as time went on.  The problem is so rampant that when you Google it, “Goya Caprichos forgery” autocompletes before “Goya Caprichos.”

Goya coupons now accepted at Sears.
Perhaps Sears is acknowledging a sketchy provenance with the price- they’re only $35 apiece.   Given the little I know about Goya’s prints, the chance of these prints being genuine is slim to none.  

The next work is one that’s almost impossible to identify based on the information given.  Price introduces it by saying it’s by “a woman in California who’s comparatively unknown.”  I think this piece (perhaps more than the others on display) really gets to the heart of what the Price/Sears collaboration was trying to do.  Namely, finding regional artists whose work was affordable and introducing it to a national audience.  They might never have received international attention on the art stage, but what was important was finding something you liked, regardless of value.  Price takes some time to talk about these very ideas before he moves on to the next piece, as print by Louis Legrand (or LeGrand):


I was able to find info on him but not this particular print.  He also highlights a small watercolor of a landscape that is unidentifiable as well (Price mentions it’s British, but that’s about it).

After all this comes the big one.  Price saves the best for (almost) last and it’s a doozy.  A print by none other than Rembrandt van Rijn.  It’s the print Angel Appearing to Shepherds and Price talks at length about the provenance of the piece.  Rembrandt (like Goya) also faces authenticity issues with his prints and Price seems to acknowledge this by detailing the print’s former owners. 


From the small amount of research I was able to do (I’m no Rembrandt print expert) this piece appears to have been the genuine article.  A YouTube commenter on the video claims his family member bought it, and years later Vincent Price himself tried (unsuccessfully) to buy it back.  If that story’s legit, someone got a great deal and owns a print that today is worth much, much more than they paid for it (the price on the tag that’s flashed on screen is $900.00.  Yes, that’s in 1960s dollars, but still probably a bargain).  A wall tag flashes briefly on the screen that seems to suggest that Sears sold (or at least planned to sell) other Rembrandt prints.  It reads:

“Angel Appearing to Shepherds”

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669)
Possibly the greatest artist that ever lived. Perhaps no as inquisitive a mind as Leonardo, but his concentration on the soul of his sitters makes him more understandably human. Almost no one can afford a Rembrandt painting but fortunately his etchings are considered by many as his greatest works and are within the financial reach of many. All the etchings and drypoints in this collection come from his studio during his lifetime. You can honestly say you own a masterpiece with the possession of any one of them.


The need to mention that all the prints available came from Rembrandts studio in his lifetime points to the idea that even in the 1960s, there could be authenticity problems with Rembrandt works.  Were any other Rembrandt prints sold at Sears in the 1960s?  Were any or all of them genuine?  I wasn’t able to find that out but it’s pretty bizarre to think that someone somewhere could have purchased a 300 year old print worth tens of thousands of dollars at a department store.

The last piece featured in the video is a painting by Karl Zerbe.  Price refers to him as “one of the best known Amercan artists.”  This is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  I was able to find some info on Zerbe but not a better reproduction of this particular painting.

Price with Karl Zerbe painting
That’s the work that Price runs through in the video.  Some big names in the forms of prints, some original paintings by lesser known artists.  As I researched this story, one advertisement from an old Sears catalog kept popping up, usually associated with the Vincent Price venture.  It’s apparently a page from the 1963 or 1967 catalog:


What often mentioned when people comment on this is that the ad claims to be selling paintings by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian.  And I should point out that the paintings aren’t just being used as d├ęcor for the fashion.  They’re catalog items with prices attached.  Was Sears selling original works by these artists and was Price attached?  The answer those questions are “of course they weren’t, don’t be silly” and “I don’t think so”. 

First, the paintings.  The Picasso is titled Girl With a Boat and is located in a gallery in Switzerland.  The Mondrian is called Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue, and was painted in 1921.  It’s currently in the collection of the Gemeentemusem in The Hague.  I don’t know when they acquired it but I think it’s a safe bet to say it didn’t come from Sears.  The museum has given it an object number of 0333329.  I don’t know very much about museum studies, but I do know it’s not uncommon for a museum to make the last 2 numbers of an identifying tag the year in which the piece was acquired.  If that’s the case here, it means that the painting entered their collection in 1929.  So what’s going on here and what was Sears selling?  The works are listed as oil paintings (not cheap reproductions on cardboard) and they’re not cheap, but they are copies.  They must have been mass produced copies too, since it’s listed in the Sears catalog and presumably more than one person might want one.

At this point, one could debate the ethical situation brought up by a major retailer passing off masterwork copies and not labelling them as such, and that’s certainly an interesting argument and discussion.  But what I want to point out here is that these reproductions appear to have nothing to do with Vincent Price’s venture.  His name does not appear on the ad, nor do the words “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art at Sears” which is what the project was usually called.  In fact, passing off copies like this would go directly against what Price wanted to accomplish. He repeatedly states in the film that the works he has chosen are authentic and original.  The catalog page is an interesting piece of kitsch history, for sure, but it’s got nothing to do with Vincent Price.

After researching Price’s venture, I’m still left with a couple of questions.  For example, how many Sears stores had galleries like this?  Sears had locations across the country, in small towns and big cities.  I would be surprised if art galleries like this cropped up in every one.  I’m guessing that the Price art collection was featured in only some stores, probably in bigger markets where consumers might have a little extra disposable income, but I don’t know for sure.

In conclusion, Price genuinely wanted to bring his love of art to everyone, and the choices he made set out to do just that.  Much of the work appears to have been prints, drawings, and watercolors, mediums that usually sell for less money.  The subject matters showcased were quaint landscapes, genre scenes, and safe modernism.  It was work that was meant to be palatable for everyone.  Was some of it middling work by artists who have been long forgotten?  Probably, but the point wasn’t to create a long-term investment portfolio of multi-million dollar pieces.  Price repeatedly states that someone should choose something they like that they can live with and looks good in their house.  Judging by the comments left on the YouTube videos, that’s exactly what happened.  It’s easy to find several commenters who remark that work bought at Sears hung in their homes (or their parent’s homes) for years and were much loved.

While reading article about this whole thing, I found articles that praised Price’s commitment to bringing art to the people, but there were just as many articles kind of mocking it as the ultimate in kitsch consumerism.  I think the criticisms miss the mark of what Price was trying to do.  He was thoroughly trained in art history and was an avid collector himself.  He donated thousands of works of art to East Los Angeles College and a museum there bears his name.  He was also an all-around decent guy.  He accepted his daughter as gay before that was even a thing, and was an early celebrity to speak up publicly about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.  He also said this:


I’d buy art from a guy like that.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments of questions. Stay on topic and respect the views of others. I reserve the right to delete any comments I deem inappropriate.