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Martin: Hi everyone, this is Martin Willis with the Antique Auction Forum. Today’s episode is number 119 with Dale Blackwelder. He is a picker who specializes in artwork; very interesting. It’s a short podcast but I hope you enjoy today’s show.
Martin: I’m with Dale Blackwelder. How are you doing Dale?
Dale: Real good.
Martin: Now you’ve been dealing in art for…?
Dale: I had my first store, I think, in 1969 or 70. I used to do clocks and music boxes, (but) I always had an affinity for art. I liked looking at it and I started collecting paper works; now it’s mostly oils.
Martin: So you’ve evolved mostly into art over the years?
Dale: Well, yeah. I like mechanical things, and what I could see really well. It was easy to do, and it was quick… you know, I could clean a clock and make a few dollars. And at that time the Europeans were sending everything over to the United States, so you could go into warehouses and buy 50 great clocks – and oil paintings and things. There was just so much of it; it was really inexpensive, so I started then.
Martin: Now, in our conversation we had prior to this, you don’t use a computer. You never used a computer, you never will, probably (laughing).
Dale: Most likely not; I just find it keeps you from learning what looks good and what isn’t good.
Martin: I like that.
Dale: Because if you only buy it because somebody else says that it’s good, then you really don’t have the feel for what art is. Art is in the eye of the beholder and if you don’t like it, somebody else will. So you don’t have to like it to sell it, you don’t have to like it to own it, you know, because there’s something for everybody out there, and if you restrict yourself to what the computer says then you’re not buying art; you’re just buying what’s on the computer.
Martin: Yes. There is an old term I’ve heard many times: a “book buyer”. They call them a book buyer because they buy it because it’s in the book.
Dale: Right. Now, it does help sell it. You could have a coffee table book with that artist, or that painting, and then they say “Oh. Well, here you go” and then all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what it is; somebody’s going to buy it because it’s in the book.
Martin: Yes. Now, do you think you’ve developed an eye for art on your own? Do you think it was trial and error? Or do you think you just naturally have that?
Dale: Well, I’ll tell you what I recommend to people. I say what you need to do is go buy some art magazines like American Art Review and just – you don’t even need to buy it, just go to the bookstore, sit in the chair and thumb through it every single month because they do sometimes obscure regional artists, and a lot of times they do very famous artists – just look, and look, and look, and train your eye; say “oh I like this one”. Or if you go to an auction house; if there’s ever an auction around where you are, go to an auction. You don’t have to buy anything, but you go through there, and don’t look at the prices or the estimates, just go through and say “I really like that one” and “I really hate that one”. If the one you really hate is $20,000 and the one you really like is $200, figure out why. And when you go back and get the results – because auction houses are very friendly about what we sold this for because they want you to know we can sell your stuff – if every time you pick out a painting and it’s the one you hate that sells for the most, you might want to reevaluate what it is you see and don’t see. And that’s a good way to learn values of things that you like and what other people like.
Martin: You say you just kind of have to adjust in what you’re attracted to.
Dale: If you want to sell it. You just have to figure it out. And the same thing with museums. Go to museums and see everything you can see and pretty soon your eye will gravitate up and up and up until you can say “this one almost got it; if he had would’ve just done a little tweak over here, the whole thing would explode”
Martin: There is a saying I’ve said before on this podcast; that a painting is only as good as its weakest element.
Martin: Another thing my father used to say to me is “Never look at the signature; always look at the painting”
Dale: Right, absolutely. The signature, it means a lot at the tail end, but in the beginning it’s totally… when I sell art I tell people, don’t buy it because of the name, buy it because it will grab you one day a month, and you stand in front of it, and you go “Ahh I know why I bought it” That is the painting for you. It might not be the most renowned artist, or it might not even be signed; it’s just if it evokes an emotion in you, that’s your painting.
Martin: Now, a lot of times I kind of go on the dark side of collecting, and wheeling and dealing, and a lot of times people will buy paintings that look like an artist’s and then the next thing you know you see it in an auction with a signature on it.
Dale: Yes, there are things you need to do if you’re going to buy a lot of art to sell art; a good magnifying glass, a black light,
Martin: There’s even some ways to get around… a black light will fluoresce a fake signature but there are ways around that.
Dale: Right, and red doesn’t bounce back like other ones, so there are things you need to learn if you’re going to be a reputable art dealer and be as honest as you possibly can with the person. And you do have to be leery of a few things; if it’s too good to be true, it’s probably, too good to be true.
Martin: especially if the price is …
Dale: Right. I find that if you’re out searching, a dollar painting is easier to make money on than a $500 painting because whoever is asking $500 for it, they’ve done some real research on it and its close, or not it; but the ones that are just off in a corner for a buck, they stand a chance to be real.
Martin: Yeah, that’s really something I’ve never thought of.
Dale: Yeah, just because it’s a dollar doesn’t mean it’s not as good as the guy asking $500 for the thing because he just didn’t like it (laughing) and it sat over there.
Martin: Yes. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought this way before or not, but when I was in California for nine years, if I go into an estate sale and the first few things I saw were way, way over priced, I got excited, because I knew they didn’t know what they were doing.
Dale: Yes, that’s exactly right. And you know what? You can go into the most highbrow store or the most lowbrow store; not everybody knows everything and there is something for you. So don’t be intimidated by, you walk in and everything is thousands and thousands of dollars. Just take your time and enjoy it. Figure out why they priced it like that, and there is probably something in there that they didn’t price properly that you might be able to get.
Martin: And where do you find your buys? In places like that?
Dale: Well people say “How do you get so much stuff?” And I say “I never stop”. It could be…
Martin: thrift stores
Martin: Where do you live?
Dale: I live in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Martin: You’re in Arkansas.
Dale: Yes. In Arkansas, some of the communities that people retired to – the state only has a couple of million people; a lot of people leave there, but a lot of people come there to retire. In the 50s and 60s a lot of people came to Arkansas to retire in their 70s and they got rid of a lot of things. And they come from New York and Chicago – kind of like a warm thing but didn’t want to go to Florida – and they brought a lot of really wonderful paintings and furniture.
Martin: Just like they do in Florida
Dale: Right. So if you happen to be lucky enough to be near one of those communities, you can shop those estate sales and things, because those are people’s things that they thought were the best, and a lot of times they are.
Martin: That’s right they brought the best and sold things they didn’t want.
Dale: And so you know it helped the family because they can liquidate it, and you can pay little bit more because you have a little more information.
Martin: Now you said you don’t use computers; do have books, do you…?
Dale: I am a very tactile person. I like nothing more than to sit down and hold a book, and browse it. And I’m not very good with names; names don’t seem to affect me too much. I’m really a tactile individual person, and I can tell brushstrokes, that if you can’t read the signature you can tell the artist by how he painted it.
Martin: I really love to look at really good brush work. Sometimes you can stare across a room and the painting looks great, but when you go up close to it you see this wonderful brushwork that is just amazingly tight.
Dale: Right, and strictly identifiable; you can have a signature that there’s no way to read and you can look at it go “oh, of course that’s what it’s”
Martin: Another thing I’ve noticed, sometimes an artist would do such a wonderful academic work on something and then the signature… you can’t figure it out. But one of the tips my father taught me is – I’m going to spread the news on this one – when you have a difficult signature to figure out, take a piece of paper and start backwards, because when you go forwards, your mind is trying to tell you a name. If you go backwards, you’re in limbo so you have a much easier time trying to figure out the name.
Dale: And to the neophyte people – I’m a neophyte too; I’m certainly not in the class of a lot of people – but I tell them the computer is wonderful; it’s a great tool. It truly is, because if you have somewhere to start, you can go there and actually see the results and things like that. But I use the print media, because if you look at the signature and it has seven letters in it, and you get three of them, you can go to Davenport’s or any of those other ones, and say “okay it starts with a D in it ends with an E, and there’s five letters in it” and if you take the time, and it’s good enough – you think it warrants that – you can go down and pretty much pick out six names that fit that category. Then you look at the date, the genre, stuff like that, and then you go to the computer and all of a sudden you say “oh, this is like one of the thousands that he did”. I don’t know if a computer can do that because I don’t use a computer but I do know that the print will help you a long way; and people forget about it; they don’t want to do it anymore. They just want to stand there and say either this is it or it isn’t. And maybe it’s just the mystery in it, or the hunt, or… but I like the work. It’s fun to me. And if you get in it, it can be fun for everyone.
Martin: My father had an auction hall for years, and he had a painting hanging with an indistinct signature, and everybody always tried to buy it; but nobody knew what it was. And I remember I spent an entire weekend, but I did figure it out, and he did very well (laughing).
Dale: Another tip is to ask everybody you know. Say “Okay I’m going to show you something. First thing that comes to mind. Don’t deliberate, don’t anything. It could be brown, it could be blue, it could be whatever name you want” And so I ask my friends; they have a pop quiz when they come over (laughing); I bring out three things I say “what’s the first one?”
Or you can put a mirror in front of it and read it backwards, like you said, and sometimes the reverse twist of it… there are little techniques that you can learn and try on your own to help you identify things.
Martin: I also think that it’s really important for someone that knows art to have them have their very first impression. Like I will just tell a friend of mine, “turn around, and you tell me what you think right now” and I turn it around right then. It’s an instinct thing.
Dale: Right; and your first impression is generally the best.
Martin: That’s right. If you have a little teeny tinge in your gut that something is wrong about it you’re probably right.
Dale: That holds true with the rest of life too. If it comes there one time, listen to it; because it’s probably the right answer. Because you bury it the first thing, you know (laughing), so, just listen to it early.
Martin: That’s right, that’s right. Let’s talk about… what are some of your good finds?
Dale: There’s a lot of small auctions in Arkansas, and I go to these auctions and buy things and had a couple of good purchases you know, simple little things. A gentleman had moved to Hot Springs years ago with his family. Came from Hollywood; he had really, really, exquisite taste. He was a confirmed bachelor, and at the end of his life he was kind of a hoarder; turned into an introvert. The roof leaked and the papers were stacked up and…
Martin: yes I know the type (laughing)
Dale: things were stacked against the wall, and mold that just kind of engulfed the whole entire thing. He died and left everything to the Catholic Church. The executor of estate said “well we have to sell everything through auction; we can’t sell it privately” (or I would’ve loved to have purchased a lot of things) but there were some paintings stacked up against the wall. I went through them and they were completely covered in mold and stuff like that and I said “These really have some value” and he said “How could they have any value? I was going to throw them out” I said “The first rule is: don’t throw anything away. Because just because you don’t like it, or the condition doesn’t matter, have somebody have a look at it.” So I picked a couple paintings out and one of them got nearly $60,000 and the rest were five or $10,000. He had really nice things, and of course they had to be cleaned and brought up so…
Martin: A lot of times you see cigarette smoke.
Dale: Oh yes and it’s just as black as the ace of spades, and it’s actually pretty simple to remove, but boy does it change the color, and all of a sudden a wonderfully dark moody painting is just bright, brilliant.
I’ve found, not in the art world, I found a lot of paintings, you know, like I say the dollar ones are an easy thousand dollars a lot of times because they just are easier to make money with.
There was a painter, Wooly Whitson, and it was the most beautiful nude at ever bought my entire life. It was just huge, and it was in a little junk mall, and they didn’t like it because it was exposing the naked body of a woman, and it turned out to be a real nice painting.
We were at a Picasso retrospective at the museum in Little Rock, and there were Diego Rivera’s, and things like that tied into it to make the show full, and right next to the Diego Rivera was this little tiny Cubist painting by this guy named Holty (Carl Holty). He didn’t make it as big as Rivera and Picasso, and I have a life-size portrait of his wife in 1914. All these Cubist and young artists of the time would go to his studio and drink and frolic and have parties, and I have some books with him sitting in the studio with all these great artists and they all took off everywhere, but there was this little tiny ode to Holty next to the Diego Rivera and it was this giant painting and this little bitty tiny thing next to it so, it’s fun and I love it
Let’s see, I’m here today at Round Top Texas, and one of the times I was here I went to one of the fields and there was this really bright colored rug. I said “how much is your rug” and the guy gave me a price, and it wasn’t very much, and he says “I don’t know why it’s so much money; my neighbor gave it to me to sell, and he said he has to get this amount” and I said “well I can do that” and so I paid him. I didn’t try to trivialize it by saying “give you nothing for nothing”, and so I bought it, and was happy as a lark. And it turned out to be like a 7 x 9 Germantown eye dazzler. So, my daughter wanted a painting by an artist named (Eduard) Veith; he was a German secessionist. It was a portrait of this angelic woman, on paper, and it was a hand cut frame that he had done, and it was just exquisite. The guy that owned it, when I showed him the rug, just about died; and the painting was very expensive and so he paid me a lot of money for the rug and I got the painting for my daughter.
Martin: At the same time?
Dale: Well I traded – the rug was very expensive too. So I traded the rug for cash and the painting for her. So you can trade, or barter, or however you want to do it.
Martin: Do you do a lot of that? A lot of trading and bartering?
Dale: Whatever works, I’m not averse to any of that. It’s just, you know, some people have a lot of money, some people don’t, so if it’s easier to trade or whatever, it’s – I don’t mind.
Martin: One last question. What you think the future of collecting is going to be?
Dale: I think the new shows have really, really, sparked interest
Martin: You’re talking about television shows?
Dale: Yes. And I think it distorts the value of things, so be careful; because you see it on TV and they say “This is $50,000. This is the hit of a lifetime” and it might be just that particular one because it had a blue bird in it and you bought one with a yellow bird, and yours is only worth $400. So you have to be very careful. Just because it appears on TV as a certain thing and it’s the Holy Grail, it’s probably not the one you own. And everybody says “but it’s just like that, except for that” so you just have to be realistic. And just like everything else, it’s a big wave, and it goes up-and-down and up-and-down. If you like art, you buy it because you like it. If you’re going to invest in art, hold onto it, because it’s going to go up, it’s going to go down; know when to sell it – it’s like those cowboy songs “Know when to hold, know when the fold” – it’s a longevity thing. But if you’re doing the flip quick, which a lot of people do and make a lot of money, but you know, if you think you’re running the museum, that’s really good; hold onto it. If you just want to sell it sometimes, if you get offered something, sell it.
Martin: Right; there is a saying that everybody makes a little money, or no one makes any money.
Dale: Right, and there’s more out there, and tastes change, so if you buy a lot of mid range stuff for a lot of money, you’re going to own it. If you buy inexpensive things, you can sell inexpensive things every day. Or you can sell the very best any time you want. At the mid-range it’s a crapshoot; everything else is easy.
Martin: Right, well I think that is really stellar advice. This is Marin Willis with Dale Blackwelder, and we’re signing off.