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  • Price Was Right
    Want a Picasso? Shop at Costco!   August 23, 2005 By Terry Teachout

    From 1967 Sears Catalog.

    As of yesterday, "Atelier de Cannes," a 1958 crayon drawing by Pablo Picasso, was still on sale at www.costco.com. Price: $129,999.99. You'll find it listed under "Gadgets, Gifts & Art," along with art prints by the likes of Chagall, Dufy, Miro, Modigliani and, er, Peter Max. The quality of these latter works is fairly modest (the Picasso isn't very good, either), but the fact that you can buy them on the Web has brought the warehouse chain reams of free publicity. Yet no one seems to remember that what Costco is doing is nothing new. Forty years ago, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was selling Picassos and Chagalls, not to mention Rembrandts, Durers, Goyas, Whistlers, Mondrians and Wyeths, all of them bearing the imprimatur of a celebrated connoisseur who was better known for making such grisly movies as "The Fly" and "House of Wax."

    Vincent Price is now best remembered for his supporting role in the classic 1944 film noir "Laura," but in the '60s he was a full-fledged movie star, albeit one who never got the girl--at least not while she was still alive. An elegantly campy gent who in his later years specialized in playing pardon-me-sir-while-I-cut-off-your-head psychopaths, Price was also one of Hollywood's most passionate art collectors, a former student at the Courtauld Institute of Art who had been well on his way to becoming an art historian when he abruptly changed course, went on the London and Broadway stages and became an overnight success.

    In 1962 Price was approached by George Struthers, Sears's vice president of merchandising, who believed his company could sell fine art to the American public the same way it sold lawn mowers and ladies' underwear. Price agreed to pick the pieces and serve as spokesman, and the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art was off and running, first in Sears's Denver store, then in other stores across the country, with a mail-order line added the following year. Not surprisingly, much fun was poked at the idea of Sears going into the fine-art business. The New Yorker even ran a cartoon about it ("It's not generally known, but we picked up this little Rembrandt etching at Sears, Roebuck"). But the company had the last laugh: During Sears's nine years in the art trade, it sold some 50,000 works at prices ranging from $30 to $3,000, many of them bought on installment plans that made it possible to purchase certain works for as little as $5 down and $5 a month. The prices were affordable, too, with Picasso's lithograph "Frederic Joliet Curie" going for $300, the equivalent of $1,850 in today's dollars--just about what the same print costs now.

    Unlikely as all this sounds, it made perfect sense in 1962. Those were the palmy days of middlebrow culture, the era when CBS devoted large chunks of its prime-time schedule to Vladimir Horowitz and "Mark Twain Tonight!" and Time magazine put John Updike and the Joffrey Ballet on its covers. It was widely taken for granted that given the opportunity, anyone could enjoy fine art--so why shouldn't ordinary folks own a piece of it?

    "I felt that here at last was a chance to expose the U.S. public to fine art at reasonable prices," Price explained. "The average housewife doesn't realize that she can buy an original work of art for very little money." Critics may have winced at the effusive catalog copy ("A Picasso can turn your dull den into a spicy fiesta!"), but there was nothing unserious about the works themselves, all of which were originals or limited-edition multiples, not cheap reproductions.

    Today, of course, the Sears catalog itself is as much a nostalgic, fast-fading memory as the Vincent Price Collection. As for Costco, I suspect that its tentative venture into the mass marketing of art will more than likely remain just that. Anyone who wants to purchase art by mail, after all, need only pay a visit to www.eBay.com, where auction houses, galleries and private individuals from all over the country buy and sell the same kinds of low-to-medium-priced lithographs, etchings and other prints that Sears used to sell.

    Still, you can't help but be touched by the faith in middlebrow taste that once inspired the executives of America's best-loved mail-order store to try selling Picassos to their customers, assisted by a genial horror-movie star who shared their belief that art was for everyone. "It's just endless what you can learn from a single work of art," Price once said. "You can fill up the crevices of your life, the cracks of your life, the places where the mortar comes out and falls away--you can fill it up with the love of art." Who's telling us that now?

    Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com.