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My Secret Life as an Art Dealer or the Origins of the Poor Getty's Museum of Fine Arts

Jan 2, 2008
I think it was the original old man Getty that said some find oil and others don't. As you probably know the Getty Museum in Los Angeles has one of the finest collections of art in the world. The 1930's, 1940's and 1950's were great decades for the nouveau riche to splurge on dirt cheap European art. Getty bought boatloads of some of the best. Actually art everywhere back then was cheap.

And it is on that end of the spectrum that I collect and play the market. The cheap side that is, not exactly the Getty side. Some find cheap good art and others don't. Actually it is a totally neglected end of the market and one that although not lucrative can almost make one feel like a poor Getty, if there is such a thing. That's why locally our house is known as the Poor Getty's Museum, dubbed such after a trip to the real thing in LA.

As a weekend pack mule, truck driver, errand boy, stand tender and other task doer for my wife's collectibles stand, I found myself constantly at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, antiques shows, locker auctions, estate sales, bankruptcy sales and liquidation sales.

Her total justification for this torture was it kept me away from meaningless activities like ball games and beer. Needless to say I quickly became fed up with the absolute mountains of stuff and junk my better half insisted on putting me through.

As a survival mechanism I needed to find a way to cope and not have a Miminsky. Being the wheeler dealer that she is, she would constantly be spying the neighbor's wares looking for bargains. 'Find some art' she would say. So I did. I brought her junk and bad prints and reprints and one day a nice acrylic and she smiled. 'Finally', she beamed.

Bingo! My career in art was off. Rather than standing around looking like I was waiting for my nachos, I was out scouring wherever we were for art. Skyview, Alameda, San Juan Bautista, De Anza, Alemany...we did them all.

My first lesson was to determine what a print is and what is an oil, acrylic, watercolor, charcoal, pen, etc. Now those of you that are experts may snicker but throughout my years of buying paintings I have seen a number of 'experts' stumped on this very issue. Unless you're an experienced dealer you need to get an eyepiece to see if it's an original or a print. I know. I bought a number of them that weren't original and have since learned real dealers make the same mistake.

The hunter of fine art has to realize that for every good painting there were dozens of bad ones. If the painting had skill that conveyed an appeal, then the painting would have value based on what is commonly called its 'design'. A skilled painting could be worth good money even if the artist was not listed or even known. I would usually pay five or ten dollars for these paintings. Sometimes fifteen or twenty but no more. My only rule was I had to like it.

At first I dealt with traditional art; art about objects that would be considered traditional. Landscapes, portraits, people...sometimes painted with incredible skill. One day in a thrift store I found four paintings by a Californian named G. Fisher. He's had a few listings and did a number of paintings up and down the California coast. At two bucks apiece I have more than gotten my money's worth.

The paintings are acrylics of Big Sur and Monterey from the 1950's and are probably worth $100-200 each. Not bad. But right now fifties paintings are going gangbusters and shooting up...so in 10 years the price may triple. But for now they adorn my Poor Getty's Museum.

In art don't be surprised if you find one thing leading to another. Occasionally, though not very often, I came across modern art. I especially like the collages. Sometimes the collage components are works of art themselves. The effects can be rather dramatic, especially if the artist is skilled.

What I have found is that modern art in general, and collages and three dimensional works in particular, are often ignored by collectors and dealers. The most valuable of mine might be worth three or four hundred dollars. Probably what Getty paid for his Del Grecos and Renoirs.

There is one drawback to my method. If you take the Poor Getty's route for your own museum be prepared for it to be a long term project. Many is the day when I found nothing. But some days I would find two or three originals and was I on top of the world. I could rotate my stock on the living room wall and pretend I was one of those few in the world that could find oil and trek to Europe to buy boatloads of big time art.

Well, maybe not oil and maybe not big time art. I don't even carry a listings guide. I always buy what I like and I like the cheap, good Poor Getty's art the best...

Why be uncivilized?
About the Author
Jack D. Deal is an avid art collector and the owner of Deal Business Consulting. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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