In 1966, Sears and Roebuck, then America’s most popular retailer, hired the original Master of Menace, Vincent Price, to sell fine art to the public. Price, best known to audiences of the time as the star of numerous B-level horror movies, was not only the frontman of the retailer’s fine art line but also the curator of a collection that, perhaps surprisingly, included works by Old Masters like Rubens, celebrity artists like Picasso and rising American artists like Georgia O’keefe alongside local unknowns. Prices started at $10.
Sears, for those too young to remember, was the Amazon of much of 19th- and 20th-century America. When the nation was populated mostly by small farms, the company’s catalog was a lifeline to manufactured goods. During its heyday, one could buy just about anything from Sears: boats, motorcycles and even entire prefabricated homes. The arrival of the Sears catalog was an event, with its riches for everyone in the family and for every room in the house and even for every chore on the farm.
As the wealth and tastes of Americans expanded, so did the offerings in the catalog. (At one point, the annual Christmas edition was 600 pages long and included everything one would need to ring in the holidays, including whole turkeys with stuffing and cranberry sauce.) It makes sense that at the zenith of American middle-class wealth, Sears would bring the fine arts to the masses. After all, it sold practically everything else.
To understand why Sears would choose an actor most recognizable as a film noir villain and horror movie baddie in league with Boris Karloff or Peter Lorre to represent its art collection, it helps to know a thing or two about Price’s off-screen persona.
Tall and handsome, with elegant manners and a natural mid-Atlantic accent, the actor came from the American aristocracy, a distant relative of the first English colonial born in the new country—Peregrine White, born on the Mayflower—and grandson of the founder of Price’s Baking Soda, from which came family wealth. He studied art history at Yale and Courtauld and owned a gallery in New York for several years. He might have gone on to have a lengthy career in academia or art advisory, but while in England, he found himself drawn to the theater, for which he had a natural aptitude and presence, given his height, figure and distinctive voice.
In 1936, Price returned to New York where he contracted with Orson Welles’ RKO Pictures. Over the next thirty years, he worked on radio and in film, creating what would become his iconic character: the elegant and soft-spoken yet menacing member of the gentry who served the best of the best with a side of gaudy double entendres. Price brought that dichotomous presence to a 1962 instructional film Sears made for their art sales teams—he hams it up during the opening with a joke about hanging paintings instead of people but overall, his delivery is educated and avuncular.
Sears’ plan was ambitious. By all accounts, Price was handed a blank check for The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art, which was intended to attract both millionaires and factory workers. An accomplished connoisseur and collector, Price already had contacts in the art world and was given carte blanche to choose the works for the initial collection.
The Vincent Price Collection opened in Denver on October 6th, 1962 to great success. The collection included paintings, prints and other works by the likes of Rembrandt, Chagall, Whistler and many contemporary artists of the day. There was a watercolor by Andrew Wyeth, a drawing by Picasso and a painting by Salvador Dali commissioned by Price specifically for the opening.
According to the official Sears page dedicated to the Vincent Price Collection, “the program was broadened with exhibits of art in ten additional Sears stores and after the first 1,500 pieces sold, it was expanded nationwide to all Sears stores.’ However, most of the retailer’s smaller locations didn’t host their own art collections and were instead included in a traveling show the store put together with selected works from the collection. Still, for rural burgs, the Vincent Price Collection display would have been the closest thing to a museum of fine art in town. And indeed, education was a key element of the sales pitch.
In the aforementioned video, Price explains who an artist is and what they accomplish thusly: “It is not done by strange fellows with long hair who live in attics and wear berets. It is done by extremely disciplined human beings who are trying to allow you—as people, untalented people, like myself—to see through their eyes the visual beauty of this world.”
Works in the collection cost anywhere from $10 to $3,000, with an installment plan available that let buyers pay just five bucks a month. Picasso’s Fille avec un bateau (Maya Picasso) was listed for $800 (including the gold-leaf frame). There were Goya prints for just $35. Like everything else Sears sold, each piece was covered by a guarantee, labeled with proof of authenticity.
The retailer’s fine arts program ran until 1971, at which point its reputation was somewhat sullied by an unconnected run of mass-produced artworks sold through the Sears catalog. The Vincent Price Collection might have been the real deal, but it and the reproductions both bore the Sears name, so the galleries were shuttered. By the close of the collection’s nine-year run, Sears had sold more than 50,000 original artworks—in part thanks to the knowledge and taste of its surprising curator.
Some press from the time accused the actor of taking the job as a cash grab and critics of the Vincent Price Collection accused Sears of running a scam. By offering a spattering of prints and lesser works by famous artists, the criticism went, the retailer could shill the work of unknown regional painters and sculptors off on the general public. But by all accounts, Price’s intentions were genuine, and he ultimately did put original artwork into the homes of average families—and help more working artists get paid.
Today, just about anybody in America can wander into a local gallery and buy a piece of original artwork for the price of a five-star dinner. Or navigate to any of a hundred websites and choose from thousands of works by artists from all over the world at almost giveaway prices—with free delivery. But the internet is full of scams, and galleries are foreign territory to most people. Sears, on the hand, was America’s brand; if they were selling it, you could trust it.
Of course, the end of the Sears collaboration wasn’t the end of Price’s passion for art or his desire to share that passion with the public. He donated thousands of pieces from his own collection to East Los Angeles College, including works by Impressionist painters and Indigenous American pieces, to establish its collection. That collection has grown to include 9,000 pieces and is housed in the on-campus Vincent Price Museum.
Price was largely known for his one-of-a-kind film and television persona right up until his death, which may be why his work with Sears seems baffling on the surface. But consider that his signature character—the aristocratic villain, the well-mannered monster (which he played on everything from Scooby Doo to Johnny Carson and in over 200 movies)—was not only sinister but also erudite and educated in an accessible way. Vincent Price, in the role of art advisor for Sears, is entirely believable.