So what’s sitting in YOUR closet? A rookie Vic Raschi card? An original combo of Barbie, Ken, and Midge ? A complete set of Pokémon cards from 1996?
What I have is a framed print of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Little Rag Gatherers. My parents bought it sometime between 1962 and 1971 at Sears & Roebuck, where the Vincent Price Collection made available over 50,000 fine-art prints (and some paintings too) from artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso, and Dalí. Mr. Price, who of course frightened generations of Hollywood horror fans in his films, was also a Yale graduate who double-majored in English and Art. He believed that public access to art was important, and so this association with Sears helped to further that aim. My parents paid $45 for the print.
I vividly remember when my parents returned home with it, announcing with some pride that “Our Whistler” had arrived. I also recall not being quite sure what to make of it. It certainly wasn’t the more famous painting that I knew of, the one of the artist’s mother. But it was indeed a Whistler because I could read his signature on it, plus the little description card on the back said so for a fact. We owned a Whistler! Our Whistler!
Whenever friends of mine came over, I proudly showed it off. “See our Whistler? It’s by the same guy who painted Whistler’s Mother, you know.” I didn’t know a print from an original painting, and that really didn’t matter to me. It came from Sears, which is hard to explain to younger people now, but in our home back in the sixties and seventies, Sears was like Amazon, Apple, and Walmart all wrapped up in one. Need a new hot water heater? Go to Sears. Want an Andrew Wyeth? Apparently you just go to Sears. It made perfect sense to the pre-teen me, even if I had no idea who Andrew Wyeth was. Or Christies or Sotheby’s for that matter.
At some point in the nineties, when my parents were long-retired and beginning to cast off possessions in preparation for selling our childhood home, they offered me the Whistler. My mother pointed out in fond recollection how much I always loved it. What she didn’t realize, is that her youngest child only once-liked the idea of our having a Whistler, not the actual etching itself. In fact, I always thought the depiction of the rag gatherers to be slightly depressing, these two people, a couple perhaps, living/working in what looked to be a hovel.
Later in life, in their slightly more lucrative years, my parents attended a few art auctions and bought some nice paintings; one of them I recall was a Kandinsky. A sister of mine, someone with much more refined tastes than myself, got the Kandinsky. Lest you think, dear reader, that I am jealous, please disabuse yourself of the notion. I was never interested in any of the artwork. My dad’s Sears houndstooth fedora? Absolutely. The artwork? Meh.
But the Whistler was so lovingly offered, and I graciously accepted it. I never would have hurt my mother’s feelings, plus there was that very kitschy Sears/Vincent Price provenance which appealed to that pre-blogger me.
This print has been dragged all over creation since that time. It’s lived in three Washington, DC-area condos, a house and two apartments in Fresno, California, a loft in Portland, Oregon, a condo in Vero Beach, Florida, and finally its present home here in St. Augustine. I recall my first wife liking it about as much as I did, and so it usually sat in some closet. Gorgeous actually likes it, but has mentioned several times that it needs to be reframed before it can be hung properly on a wall.
A recent article in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (“Fight Inflation With Collectibles,” August 2022, p. 30 — not yet online) piqued my interest in the Whistler again. A quick Google search told me that it wasn’t valued at but a few hundred dollars at most, but the skeptic in me thought it was still worth finding out for sure. Most art appraisal sites offer the chance to make an inquiry, though they also want you to register and/or give them too much information about yourself. However, a visit to the website of the Appraisers Association of America, and a click on their “Find an Appraiser” link, offered some appraisers to contact. From there I whittled them down to the one guy I thought looked approachable. I decided to contact him to ask if my Whistler print is worth anything.
And why not? According to Milica Jovic in a 2018 posting on the Art Acacia site, “[C]ertain prints are known to reach seven or eight-figure prices at auctions.” Seven or eight figures! Take that, Sis. You can keep your Kandinsky. I’m gonna see if papa can get a brand new bag. Or merely pay for the recent kitchen renovation, I’m really not choosy.
With an economy of words along with a self-effacing tone (aren’t I always?), I wrote an Orlando-based appraiser a brief message about the Whistler, where it was purchased, etc. Two hours later I received a brief but cordial response and an attachment. I learned that the print is valued between $500 to $700, and that a 2011 sale at his own gallery, it sold for $549.
Those are decidedly not seven or eight-figure numbers. But I also suspect that if my parents were still alive, and they maybe saw it on an Antiques Road Show episode, they’d be thrilled that their original $45 dollar investment had appreciated so much. “Where America Shops,” indeed.
So in the end, I’m still holding onto a fond memory from my childhood. A new frame will finally get it out of the closet (no pun intended, this being Florida and all) and put up on one our walls.
Besides, I’ve still got Dad’s fedora.
Until next time…