Good Buys in the Historic Market

By Margaret L. Brown

Acquiring quality works by 19th- and early 20th-century artists can often seem beyond the reach of the average collector. Just take a look at some recent prices: An oil by California plein-air painter Guy Rose [1867-1925] sold for $277,500 at Sotheby’s last year, and a small oil by Georgia O’Keeffe [1887-1986] went for $255,500 in the same auction. These blockbuster figures shouldn’t dissuade you from investigating the historic market, however. As you’ll see in the following pages, there are plenty of affordable opportunities to own a piece of history.

Early California Art

Arthur Rozaire, Two Figures in Bathing Suits [c1917-22], oil, 7 x 51⁄4, George Stern Fine Arts., Southwest Art
Arthur Rozaire, Two Figures in Bathing Suits [c1917-22], oil, 7 x 51⁄4, George Stern Fine Arts.

“If an artist like Guy Rose is out of your price range, consider looking for a lesser-known California impressionist from roughly the same period,” says Pam Ludwig, director of Joan Irvine Smith Fine Arts, Laguna Beach, CA. The gallery specializes in California painters from about 1890 to 1930, along with contemporary artists who paint in a traditional style. Ludwig advises collectors to educate themselves by going to as many galleries as possible. “Look for a painting you love that’s the best you can get for the money you have to spend,” she says.

Ludwig recommends, for example, small paintings by California impressionist Paul Grimm [1892-1974], a prolific artist who had a gallery and studio in Palm Springs. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a friend and patron of the artist, says Ludwig. Joan Irvine Smith Fine Arts offers works by Grimm from the 1930s to the ’50s for around $1,500. “In his later years, Grimm’s eyesight failed and his paintings were not as good,” says Ludwig. “But his earlier works are strong and have nice impasto brushwork.”

Works by affordable, lesser-known artists can also be found at California Craftsman’s Guild in San Francisco, CA. In addition to contemporary artists working in a traditional style, the gallery features a collection of early Carmel-Monterey painters who began congregating in the towns along the Monterey peninsula at the turn of the century.

Paul Grimm, Rooted Silence [c1945], oil, 24 x 20, Joan Irvine Smith Fine Arts., Southwest Art
Paul Grimm, Rooted Silence [c1945], oil, 24 x 20, Joan Irvine Smith Fine Arts.

Among the most famous of the group represented at the gallery is Charles Rollo Peters [1862-1928], known for his nocturnal scenes, whose paintings start at about $7,000. An even more affordable alternative are works by Peters’ contemporaries Ferdinand Burgdorff and Lester Boranda—both of whom are represented in museum collections—priced around $3,500, says gallery director Barbara Klein.

Mike Kelley, owner of Kelley Gallery in Pasadena, CA, is also an advocate of seeking out strong “second-tier” painters. He encourages collectors to do as much research as possible before making a purchase—from visiting galleries and museums to monitoring auction prices. “After a while you’ll reach a point where you have a feel for quality and pricing,” he says. “You’ll be able to rate paintings in terms of value for the price and make wise buying decisions.” Like Ludwig, Kelley says the most important criterion is the quality of the painting, not the signature in the corner.

A signature on many paintings at Kelley Gallery is that of Dedrick Stuber [1878-1954], who painted in Los Angeles and Orange County in the 1920s and ’30s. His work is “markedly different” from that of his contemporaries, says Kelley, reflecting a French Barbizon influence. The paintings are all priced under $5,000. Many of the locations where Stuber sketched have undergone radical development over the years. “But if you go to these spots, you can still see some lingering remnants of what Stuber depicted,” says Kelley. Such paintings of identifiable historical locations are “a real sleeper area in terms of collecting,” he adds. “If you have a painting of a Los Angeles intersection as it looked in the 1920s, you’ve got a bit of history.”

Featured in January 1998