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Vincent Price shows off Sears’ Collection of Fine Art, ca 1962

Earlier this month (October 2012) a New York Times article about Costco’s plans to sell fine art online caught my eye.  Greg Moors, the San Francisco dealer responsible for sourcing the works sold by the big box giant, described his vision of high quality, accessible works available to all (or at least many) and driven by good customer service.  And what really struck me was that his description could have almost been a verbatim quotation from another unlikely art retailer half a century ago.

As the Times pointed out, “Costco is certainly not the first large chain to offer fine art. Between 1962 and 1971, Sears sold more than 50,000 works by artists like Picasso, Rembrandt, Chagall and Whistler through its catalog and in its stores as part of the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art.  Customers at Sears could buy a work on layaway for as little as $5 down and $5 a month. Sears guaranteed every purchase just as it would with a refrigerator or lawn mower.”

In a supreme example of early vertical integration, Sears cross-marketed its fine art collection with other home goods and clothing.

To lift its image and craft its retail art operation, Sears turned to Vincent Price.  If your main impression of Vincent Price is informed by his later career as a master of b-movie horror films you may wonder at his selection as arbiter of taste for the nation.  But in 1962 Price was better known as a man of elegance and connoisseurship: educated at Yale and trained at the Courtauld, he had spent decades as an art collector, lecturer, gallerist and general connoisseur.  Looking over some of the 50,000 works sold through the Sears Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art between 1962 and 1971 it’s truly striking how well they hold up.  On the whole they’re a remarkably well-chosen, thoughtfully-curated group of modestly priced works of rather exceptional quality.  In particular, the prints and other works on paper by major American and European artists including Cassatt, Wyeth, Chagall, Picasso, Whistler, Goya, Rembrandt reflect the eye of a truly skilled curator and dealer.

“Artist’s Studio” a watercolor by Andrew Wyeth offered for sale by Sears’ Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art in 1966.

Moreover, Vincent Price was also a highly skilled marketer, understanding instinctively that lack of confidence would be a barrier for many Americans collecting art for the first time.  In a training film made ca 1962, Price reassures Sears’ gallery salesmen that they can be confident recommending any work of art selected by him.  Neither they nor their customers need to worry about being embarrassed by their choice or having their taste questioned.  “I’ve tried…to give the customer the feeling that I really was selecting each work of art for some individual out there who is going to come along and say, ‘that is what I like, it is beautifully framed, it’ll fit in my home, here is the price and I have the Vincent Price and the Sears guarantee that it’s okay.’”

Vincent Price with his private collection of Pre-Colombian and Native American Art (now housed in the Vincent Price Museum in East Los Angeles)

It’s a surprisingly poignant reminder of how young the field of American art collecting was in those Cold War years.  Americans may have been convinced that having good art on their walls was a sign of good taste and success, but listening to Price reassure his salesmen, one realizes how insecure many of those new collectors must have been.  Price’s patter is laden with confidence-building catchphrases: proud, the best, good taste, first class, very fine, top, in vogue, famous, very good art.

“I can assure you that we’re very proud to have some of these pictures…You can be proud to show it to your customers and to sell it…But don’t forget that the first thing in selling a work of art is to have respect for the customer’s taste.  The old cliche about, ‘I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like’ is very true.  People will like something enormously but they won’t know why.  But the assurance that you can give them is that it is all first class work.  And that’s terribly important.”

A quick search of the internet will yield half a dozen art sites ridiculing Price and the notion of selling art like hammers.  And I’ll admit it’s hard not to wince a little watching this training film: it’s all so painfully Babbitt-y.  But the truth is the works are everything Price claimed: high quality, well selected, nicely framed and masterfully calibrated to guide and appeal to a post-war clientele that was interested and open minded but uninitiated.  Lucky for those early buyers who bought what Price was selling.

What to look for: gallery label from the Sears Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art

If you happen to come across a print or drawing with a Vincent Price label, consider yourself very lucky indeed.  Surprising as it sounds, this is excellent provenance and the work has very likely held or appreciated in value.  Works of art sold by Sears for $10 to $3,000 fifty years ago are often worth much, much more today.  In a future post I’ll provide a summary of one such work, a lovely Mary Cassatt etching I’m in the process of appraising now.