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COLLECTING CELEBRITY ART
by Baird Jones
 
I have spent over $1 million on my celebrity art collection, buying works by everyone from Bob Dylan to James Dean. Some of these objets díart were made as afterthoughts, done as scribbled drawings in the margins of a celebrity autograph. Others are legitimate artworks made by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, who despite their accomplishments in their respective fields still turned to fine art to establish their true creativity.

A handful of celebrities have made serious money in the art biz. Red Skelton sold some of his paintings for as much as $80,000 a canvas, and some of these were clown paintings on velvet -- if any artist can do clowns on velvet without irony, it would be Skelton. Sinatraís art prices also became astronomical. David Byrne and Martin Mull have managed to enter the contemporary art mainstream, at least somewhat.

But celebrities like these are the exceptions. When Sothebyís auctioned off a trove of Muhammad Ali memorabilia five years ago, everything went wildly above estimate -- except for Aliís artworks, which fell significantly short of their presale evaluations. The people who take art seriously are rarely the same people who care about celebrityhood.

Galleries that specialize in celebrity art, typically located in tourist-trap areas like Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and Hawaii -- and now, like SoHo in New York -- tend to be insanely expensive. Among the wares are works by the likes of Richard Chamberlain, Marcel Marceau and Anthony Quinn, interspersed with art by noncelebrity artists like Peter Max and assorted questionable works by Salvador DalŪ and such.

I can recommend two galleries that often have celebrity art for sale at reasonable prices, however. The first is Image Makers Art Gallery of Stars in New Hope, Pa., where I bought a work by Micky Dolenz of the Monkees. The website is at www.imagemakersart.com. The second gallery is Robert Rogalís Ro Gallery, which conducts an extensive business in lithos and other artworks at www.rogallery.com. My acquisitions there included works by Ali and actor Jeff Bridges.

Other celebrities sell their own artworks on their own websites. Peter Falk sells his impressive lithographs -- academic-style figure studies and comic drawings, in editions of 300 or more -- at www.peterfalk.com. Prices are only a few hundred dollars each. One of Falkís assistants told me that the actor enjoys the idea that his fans can buy his work, but that the website isnít really a money-making enterprise. Celebrities are so used to sending autographed photographs to their fans for free that they continue this goodwill attitude in the pricing of their artwork on their websites.

Comic screenprints by Kurt Vonnegut are available at www.kurtvonnegut.com for bargain prices. A signed and numbered two-color print, measuring about 11 x 15 in., showing a falling blue bomb inscribed with the words, "Goodbye Blue Monday," is $275. Vonnegut also offers an aluminum cutout sculpture, showing a nude from behind, for $1,800.

Another good online buy was an awesome Marilyn Manson self-portrait lithograph -- as an amputatee baby -- which I purchased from his website for a bargain: $150. Generally speaking, Manson is hip to the art world, and his art can be quite expensive. †

Even after his death, Buddy Ebsenís "limited edition lithographs" were still available on his website -- "Uncle Jed Country" -- for only $150 for a "framed, signed and numbered Artistís Proof, edition of 100." Spring Bath, for instance, measures 18 x 24 in. and features Uncle Jed taking a bath in the water trough while his bloodhound Olí Duke looks on.

I donít have to tell you that an artistís prices can soar after his or her death. For instance, I bought a number of paintings directly from rock star Dee Dee Ramone for $200 each in order to include them in an exhibition I was organizing at the Paterson Museum in New Jersey. Only a few weeks later, poor Dee Dee died after a heroin overdose, and paintings like the ones I had bought were being bid up into the thousands on eBay.†

Many people assume I have bought much of my celebrity art on eBay. In fact, eBay has its problems for a celebrity-art collector. The general celebrity fascination in our country brings competitive, savvy bidders to eBay in droves, and they often push up prices during the final minutes of online auctions. Iíve only purchased about five percent of my collection on eBay, including works by artists like Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz and Mel Blanc (who are actually legitimate cartoonists, of course, only needing a slight adjustment to transition into the "artiste" category).

And while caricature self-portraits by celebrities Art Carney and Jimmy Stewart can be found cheaply on eBay, such wares are also offered at even lower prices on autograph auction sites. At Signaturepieces.com, for instance, a search under "sketch" can turn up autographs that have been accompanied by a doodle or a caricature. With eBay, authenticity can be an issue, while good autograph auction houses like R&R Enterprises in Amherst, N.H. (and online at www.rrauction.com), have staff to vet the material pretty closely. I have bought half of my collection through rrauction.com, which publishes a lavish catalogue every month -- though it features only a few good art items each time around. Among the works in my collection are captivating self-portrait sketches by Vincent Price, Whoopi Goldberg, Fred Astaire and George Takei, all purchased for less than $25 because most people considered them only minor autographs that just happened to include a doodled image.†

"Celebrity" is a broad term and one peculiarly active area among collectors is art by serial killers and infamous murderers -- not least of all Adolf Hitler. On the specialist website www.murderauction.com one can find all manner of drawings by condemned killers. Authenticity can be a problem but with prices as low as $25, the risk is limited. My purchases from this site have included small drawings by Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) and Ottis Toole (the friend in the movie "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer"). Expensive paintings by Charles Manson are regularly featured here.

Another macabre addition to a celebrity collection are signed and numbered posters by "Dr. Death," Jack Kevorkian, available at the Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, Mich. Last I looked, these posters were only $200 each.

Charity auctions often include artworks by celebrities, and the interested collector should keep an eye out for these kinds of art benefits. Some years ago I paid $700 at Marianne Boesky Gallery for a Lou Reed photograph of hazy New York skyline, a work that I treasure, and about ten years ago I scooped up a Rudy Giuliani photograph of the Twin Towers for $400 at the Leica Gallery on Broadway, an image that recently went for $4,000 at Sothebyís. I also acquired a painting by Congo the Chimp for a $200 donation at an animal rights benefit, and a slightly claustrophobic litho by Merce Cunningham at a dance benefit.

I have a weakness for postcards and notecards designed by celebrities, which arenít signed, of course, and consequently are very inexpensive. The art is terrific, in any case. An organization called Kids Art collaborated with the Pediatric Epilepsy Project at UCLA to produce an amazing series of postcards by celebrities -- ranging from David Arquette and Laura Dern to Matthew Broderick to Don Rickles -- which are for sale at www.kidsartinc.com. Similarly, at www.angelwear.com, I paid $4 for a set of ten postcards by Keanu Reeves, Diane Keaton, Sly Stallone and others. And at the website of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network -- www.rainn.org -- I bought postcards by Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe and Cyndi Lauper.

And last but not least, Long Island Cares and the Harry Chapin Food Bank is offering a series of ceramic tiles imprinted with doodled self portraits by Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts), Phyllis Diller and Jefferson Airplaneís Marty Balin, among others. They are $15 apiece and are very handy around the house.


BAIRD JONES reports on art and celebrity in New York.