I just saw His Kind of Woman with Robert Mitchum and Vincent Price. Price plays an actor with an ace shot for big game, and as the movie goes on, for mafia hoods. The character’s enthusiasm, in this case for shooting his rifle, reminded me of other characters that Price played–usually keen ghouls–and for his appearances on television relating to art, where he comes off as a boyishly enthusiastic connoisseur.
Price was born in 1911 in St. Louis. His grandfather, a chemist, had made a fortune in baking powder before losing it in the panic of 1893. His father worked through the ranks to become president of the National Candy Company, makers of jawbreakers and other confections. Vincent Price had a comfortable upbringing and went first to Yale (grad. 1933) and then to the Courtauld in London. He collected in many areas, among them: contemporary art, tribal art, Asian art, old master drawings, and orientalist paintings. His daughter in an entertaining NYT (21 June 2001) piece talks of Price’s buying a motorhome, a Clark Cortez, and kitting it out with Mexican folk art, British oil studies, and renaissance drawings.
Sears Roebuck in 1962 hired Vincent Price to amass a group of art works to sell through their stores and catalogs. With a budget of three million dollars Price rounded up contemporary and earlier art works to sell. Fifty thousand oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints were sold through Sears until the program ended in 1971. The Man Ray drawing just below was one of the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” works sold at Sears.
Judging from the works shown in the instructional film for Sears salespeople, link here, much of the work would not interest serious collectors. (Lessing J. Rosenwald, the great print collector, donor to the National Gallery, and son of Julius Rosenwald, an early owner of Sears, would not have been a target customer.) But that was not the point. Price wanted to introduce the American public to art collecting, thinking that owning art was the only way to truly value and understand it. Of course, he was being paid by Sears, but he seems sincere when he says “My satisfaction from running the Sears Art program is primarily the fact that I am able to bring art to literally hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to become involved in the most enriching experience of my life–collecting or owning a work of art.”*
In the same piece, Price says of his collecting:
“As a collector of art, all the arts, during a long lifetime, I can only say that I have never stopped asking myself why I collect. The answers are many. First of all, I would think the greatest reason is that I feel by having a work of art around me continually I learn from it, not only about the artist but about myself. Collecting has helped me form my taste and I admit happily that my taste changes continually. Of all the areas of collecting in which I have been involved only two have remained constant, primitive art and drawings. In both of these areas I never seem to become bored with the individual work. Primitive art is a direct communication from the artist to the viewer and drawings have the same directness since they are the immediate response of the artist to the subject.”
Price made television appearances as an art expert, on the “64,000 Challenge” and in a more entertaining 1952 segment of “What in the World?” The show involves three panelists who are shown artifacts and have to come up with where, when, and why the pieces were created. The program was developed by the University of Pennsylvania and lasted through the 50s and into the 60s. In the 1952 show, link here, Vincent Price is on stage with a museum professional and the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. Price seems the most eager of the panelists and sparks fly (collector hallmark) when he picks up and examines the objects.
In 1987 Price’s collection of drawings was shown in Bloomington at the Indiana University Art Museum. I haven’t seen the catalog, but I’m having a friend look through it and send along images, which I’ll post. Through a search of auction and museum databases, I found a Stefano della Bella, visible here, and a drawing by Modigliani, visible here, that belonged to Price.
Beginning in 1951, Price began giving works of art to East Los Angeles College. The college now has 900 works from Price’s collection and the museum is named after Price, the Vincent Price Art Museum. In 2010-2011 the museum will have a new building and it will be interesting to see if they will create an online database of their collection, now numbering 9,000 works of art.
* Vincent Price. “Museum or Marketplace,” Art Education, Vol. 19, 2 Feb. 1966, pp. 29-32.