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By Phil Hall | December 28, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 460: “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” (1962 corporate training film starring Vincent Price).

LAST SEEN: The film can be found on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Via labels specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright protection on a rare film with an iconic star.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Only as a public domain offering.

A few weeks back, I wrote a column about an unsold television pilot that starred Vincent Price as an art dealer involved in solving criminal cases. Since then, I’ve come across another Vincent Price oddity that goes further into the actor’s much-publicized expertise of fine art. And because I believe that you can never have too much of Vincent Price, I’ve decided to close 2012 with this fascinating and rarely seen film.

In 1962, Sears Roebuck & Co. decided to expand its merchandise offerings into the realm of fine art. This was not the first time that Sears presented itself as a resource for art lovers – according to the company’s archives, it was selling original oil paintings in its retail stores as far back as 1895. But in order to kick off this new endeavor, Sears needed a major name to help provide instant credibility.

In the early 1960s, Vincent Price was enjoying a career resurgence through his work in a series of low-budget, high-energy horror films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But the public also recognized Price as an expert on art history, thanks to his ability to show off his knowledge on TV quiz shows and via extensive tours across the U.S. lecture circuit. As a result, the off-screen price was viewed as a cultured and intellectual presence that could offer engaging insight regarding the European and American artistic experiences.

Sears approached Price with the task of being the driving force behind its fine art project. But Price was not merely a celebrity endorser. Instead, he was given the responsibility and the funds to purchase original works of art that would be available for sale at Sears. In the first two months of this project, Price acquired approximately 2,700 paintings and prints that would be made available to Sears’ customers.

However, the retailer recognized that this campaign would be very different from its typical sales efforts. To help accommodate its sales staff, Sears created a short instructional film to explain the mission of this project and to offer advice on how to sell original artwork.

The 17-minute film, which was titled “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art,” consisted of Price speaking directly to the viewer. The film opened with Price walking into a room where several paintings and prints were on display. Price carried a stepladder for his entrance and, playing on his horror film image, stated, “I can assure you that I was hanging pictures and not people.”

For the first part of the film, Price sat on the stepladder and spoke directly to the camera. Unfortunately, the uncredited director used a two-camera set-up but failed to offer adequate cueing on where Price should look. Thus, Price occasionally appeared to look off-screen while speaking into a camera that is not filming him – only to turn abruptly to make eye contact with the operational camera while in mid-sentence.

Price went to great pains to play down the highbrow notion of fine art. “Art belongs to everyone,” he said, adding that one of his goals in this project was “to give art a haircut” – or, in translation, to make it accessible and understandable to a wider audience.

Price insisted that there “was no excitement in the world like owning an original piece of art,” and he spent second half of the film showing off some of the work that he gathered for Sears. Quite frankly, what he acquired was more than a little impressive: a Hiroshige woodcut, an autographed print by Toulouse-Lautrec, two prints by Goya, and a Rembrandt print. All of the works were originals, not reproductions, though Price mostly avoided talking about suggested retail pricing (he did mention the Goyas sold at $35 per print).

Unfortunately, the film did not offer close-ups for most of the works being sold. While 1962-era Sears workers might have been satisfied to know that a Goya or a Toulouse-Lautrec was being made available, today’s culture vultures would certainly be curious to get a closer look at what Price and Sears presented.

Acknowledging the Sears’ staff’s lack of experience with this line of merchandise, Price happily pointed to “program notes” that he created for each work that was on sale. “The more you know about it,” Price admonished, “the easier it is to sell.”

Perhaps recognizing that some of the artwork might seem avant-garde for the typical Sears shopper, Price added that sales staff should be polite. “Have respect for the customer’s taste,” he said. “People will like something enormously and not know why.”

Ultimately, Price reminded his audience that despite its fancy trappings, the fine art for sale was a retail product. “This is no arty experiment – this is merchandise to sell,” he proclaimed, adding that art should be seen as “furniture of the eye and the mind.”

Apparently, “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” empowered the Sears workers above and beyond expectations. When the program premiered in October 1962 at a Sears in Denver, it was a retailing sensation – 1,200 pieces were sold in first three days. Pricing ranged from $10 to $3,000 (remember, this was 50 years ago – that was serious money back then), and Sears shrewdly extended its installment plan payments for those eager to put a Goya on their walls.

Sears and Price worked together through 1971, and more than 50,000 art pieces were sold in that period. One can assume that “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” was screened at every Sears outlet that carried this “furniture of the eye and the mind” – and while the general public was enjoying Price’s cinematic forays into horror, Sears’ employees experienced a more urbane and surprising side of the actor.

“The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” was never intended to be seen outside of Sears. But over the years, prints found their way into collector-to-collector channels. As with many corporate training films of the era, the film is a public domain offering and can be duped by anyone who wants to make a quick buck off a second-generation print. Copies of the film can easily be found on YouTube, and at least one collector-to-collector website sells this short film as a standalone DVD.

Price once remarked on his horror movie stardom by observing, “The horror thriller offers the serious actor unique opportunities to test his ability to make the unbelievable believable.” In many ways, his unlikely role as a sales coach for Sears was the most unique opportunity of his career – and the financial success of his partnership with the retailer certainly made the unbelievable believable.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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