Celebrity art combines the worst of several worlds. Since most stars who make art have little art training, their work tends to be ahistorical, a Hollywood version of naïve or outsider art. Furthermore, since celebrity art is shunned by top galleries, it's usually displayed side-by-side with kitsch and low-grade prints (or forgeries of same).
On the other hand, collectors of celebrity memorabilia -- a sizable market in itself -- tend to view celebrity art as second-class goods. Memorabilia collectors are looking for the star's signature most of all, and they want the signature to be in ink. Artworks like lithographs are signed in pencil, of course, further limiting their value in this field. And for those who seek to own a star's autograph, the goal is a souvenir which exemplifies the career of the notable -- Muhammad Ali's moniker on boxing gloves, not on a canvas.
This link between value and subject is reflected in the pricing of four signed Ali lithographs available from Ro Gallery in Long Island City (718-937-0901). The Ali lithos are all 18 by 24 inches, and were published in 1978 in editions of 500. Three have religious imagery and cost $2,000 each: Under the Sun, which shows a jet plane; Guiding Light, showing an image of a lighthouse; and the eponymous Mosque II. The fourth is a cartoonish scene of the boxing ring, titled Sting Like a Bee, that retails for $4,000 -- and is considered a bargain.
Some celebrity artists sign only their first name, a variable that can also effect the price of the work. Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood, in his exhibition at Ambassador Gallery in SoHo last spring, included lithos that are signed with only "Ronnie." These were priced at $200, while lithos with the full "Ronnie Wood" signature were $400. Even more curiously, celebrity art seems to gain in value if the star has inserted his or her signature into the body of the work. Red Skelton often signed his clown pictures in a floating balloon. Obviously, in this genre, a signature on the back of a drawing or canvas is such a disaster that it often necessitates a glass backing so that the autograph is still visible.
If one collects celebrity art with these caveats in mind, a trove of entertaining artwork can be found, often at very low prices. First off, doodles by celebrities are easy to get. The best source is R&R Enterprises in Bedford, N.H., which holds a catalogue auction about every two weeks; call 800-937-3880 for a free copy. R&R guarantees the authenticity of all signed objects.
The R&R sales feature a roster of "the usual suspects" in the celebrity-art game. Almost every issue has sketches by Art Carney, stripper Blaze Starr (usually at the top of a spicy love letter), Adam West, George Takei and Vincent Price (profile self-portrait), most in the $100 range.
A notch above in terms of price are lithos and sketches by John Wayne Gacy, unsigned doodles by Dwight Eisenhower (with excellent witness documentation) and Jimmy Stewart's sketches of Harvey the Rabbit. Top quality lithos from huge editions (often 1,000 plus) by David Bowie have surfaced there in the $300 range, which is much less than they sell for in galleries but about the same as what can be found at his website, davidbowie.com.
Excellent detailed small drawings by Enrico Caruso start in the $500 range. One recent auction (Dec. 16, 1998) had $50 minimum bids for a Tim Burton felt-tip doodle, a silver ink sketch of a lion by Tippi Hedren and a rare, very small double self-portrait sketch by Eli Wallach. All went for $61, perhaps because Christmas shoppers were too busy elsewhere to drive up the prices. By contrast, similar ink drawings by Adam West have gone for as high as $500 at Ambassador Gallery.
R&R charges a modest shipping fee and accepts major credit cards. It's been my experience that the prices at R&R are well below anything at eBay.com, and it's my sense that the authenticity is vastly more reliable. Yet an L.A. memorabilia dealer told me that he had wondered whether Alfred Hitchcock self portrait profiles in the R&R catalogue, listed with a minimum bid of $400, were authentic.
One last warning about the autograph niche of celebrity art. Celebs who do doodles and a signature may develop exceptional accuracy in their sketching skills, but only of their "insignia" image. Alistair Cooke can give you a dead ringer self-portrait, but nothing else. Embarrassingly, several such drawings lined up against each other show an almost Xerox-like identity of lines and shades. In isolation, such drawings can be tons of fun -- even though the star has merely memorized a series of markings, with a minimum of discernible creative input.
By contrast, James Dean and Robert Mitchum gave away very sloppy drawings (especially disappointing are the plethora of Mitchum's LOVE / HATE fingers from Night of the Hunter), but when inspired they were capable of turning out detailed, unique caricatures, which are the real prize.