R.I.P. Vincent Price, Hollywood's Scariest Art Collector
|1955 photo of Vincent Price with his Richard Diebenkorn painting|
In 1962 the department store chain began selling "The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art," artworks chosen for the mass market by Price himself. The selections included original pieces by Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Hiroshige, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso, at prices ranging from $10 to $3000.
In 1962 Price did a training video for Sears employees more accustomed to selling chainsaws than Chagalls. In its way, the video is a chilling comment on the art market. Watch how easily a smarmy screen psychopath segues to smarmy gallerist. Says Price: "One of the problems that you will find in selling this merchandise, as you do with any other kind of merchandise, is that the better you know it, the more you know about it, the easier it is to sell."
The democratic tone of Price's spiel bears comparison to today's museology (also bankrolled by big corporate interests). The Sears initiative is framed as a way of bringing art to under-served communities—by owning art, not Instagramming it. Price pitches two Goya Caprichos aquatints: "A lot of people felt they could never afford to own a picture by the great Goya. You’d be amazed at how reasonable these are. These pictures, first-class prints by the great Goya, $35 apiece." Nowadays $25 gets you into a big museum for the afternoon.
There remain mysteries about the Sears/Price collection. Consider this Sears catalog page. The sales copy is priceless. Everything else is cheap. I guess it was possible, in the 1960s, to sell Picasso's famous lithograph The Bull for only $560 framed. But they couldn't have been selling original Picasso and Mondrian oil paintings for $800. Right?
It's reported that Price commissioned an original work from Salvador Dali for Sears. OK, Dali would sign anything. It's harder to imagine Picasso allowing a copy to be sold as a signed original.
Sears says it sold over 50,000 pieces of original art before the promotion ended in 1971.
|Rembrandt, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1634. Sears offered an impression of this etching for $900.|
UPDATE: See Vincent Price & Sears: The Sequel
Price played a remarkable role in introducing Los Angeles audiences to avant garde art. See the Smithsonian oral history: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-vincent-price-13227