Seventeen Dollars a Square InchApril 20, 2011
The following is an excerpt from my book about Eric Sloane, who was my best friend. It’s called Seventeen Dollars a Square Inch. He wrote about fifty books in fifty years, could paint a major painting a day, and still have time to lunch with me. You can get the book from Collected Works Book Store in Santa Fe. (505-988-4226)
Eric Sloane was the best thing that ever happened to Fenn Gallery in Santa Fe, but he had some quirks. He was happy with the two-thirds cut he received on each of his paintings we sold, but he didn’t like to price them because it embarrassed him. He said I was his manager so I should be the one to do those things. Little did I imagine at the time what problems that would cause later on.
Three or four times a week Eric and I would have lunch at Ernie’s or The Pink because both places had paper place mats on which he could doodle while we waited for the waitress, and I made him sign each drawing. To overstate his modesty, he usually scratched his name upside-down or backwards or both. That was Eric all over. My archive is full of his clever scribbling because I could grab faster than the waitress.
Well, one rainy noon, when he was right in the middle of onion soup, hold the bread, I made an innocent remark that should have gone right past him without even a wrinkle. “We’re selling your paintings for $17 a square inch.” Good Lord, you’d have thought I’d stolen the burnt umber right out of his paint box or maybe even something worse. His eyes became maddingly deliberate as he leaned forward, pushing his soup bowl aside, and started to expound on what a terrible way that was to price any painting, much less his very own. It was an anxious moment. I had the dreadful feeling that he thought I had somehow taken the sacredness out of his work. I tried to explain that we needed a par so we could establish his prices and build at a steady rate that would reflect an honest appreciation. “That’s not enough,” he said. I felt naked, so I just sat there, eating my bologna sandwich with mustard, pickles and horseradish.
Part of my pricing logic was based on Eric’s painting output. He could produce a major painting in a few hours, go to lunch with me and to dinner that night with his wife. People don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true. One time we had twelve of his paintings in my office waiting for them to dry so we could put them in the bins.
And once, when he had a few minutes to kill while waiting to lunch with me, he made a wonderful mural on the curved plaster wall in the adjacent gallery guesthouse bathroom. It portrayed an old country outhouse in a brownish-red housescape with a barn and some trees. When Jackie Kennedy stayed there, she said it was “Charming, but the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” After that we called that little room “The Privatorium.”
He didn’t say anything more for a while, so I suggested that he might have misapprehended my intentions, and tried to explain that everything is sold by size: airplanes, houses, yachts, diamonds, picture frames, even fish. It didn’t help, and as the syllables rolled off of the end of his tongue and just hung there in mid-air, he made it clear that his paintings weren’t exactly mackerel. He was in a swivet, so prudence whispered that I should just sit tight and try to appear useful.
Finally, I told him that at $17 a square inch one of his larger paintings, say 21” x 43”, (with Masonite you can cut any size you want) would bring about $15,000, plus or minus a little depending on quality and subject. It didn’t help. Even when I reminded him that he could paint one in five hours, and his percentage was $2,000 an hour, which was even more than Marilyn Monroe was making, it didn’t matter. He ordered Rosalea’s crème brulee, and didn’t even ask me what I wanted. That told me I would probably have to pay for lunch.
Anyway, I narrowed the discussion to a tight focus, “That’s more than 33 bucks a minute when you’re painting, and in the length of time it takes you to change brushes you’ve made 55 cents.” It didn’t help. He said it was the principal of the thing. (I didn’t remind him that principal has always been a convenient excuse to abandon logic.) He wasn’t listening.
Fortunately, a new short-skirted waitress sauntered up about that time, tossing her thick braids at Eric, and refilled our glasses with lemonade, which gave me time to think. After all, he was twenty-five years north of me, age wise, and a person who had been elected to the National Academy of Design, and had already garnered many more accolades than I ever would.
Eric soon acquiesced with a smile, and I realized that all of his bravery was in his talk. Nevertheless, we agreed that he would price his paintings for a year and see what happened, so he added about a third to every painting we had. The next year, 1981, we sold only 27 paintings, so his income was reduced by about two-thirds, or $105,500. What bothered him most, I think, was seeing all of those paintings stacked side by side in the bins while his wallet was beginning to grow mildew. Besides, he was still bringing in two or three new paintings every week.
So in 1982 we went back to my system of pricing. He blushed to admit that he didn’t even want to know about it. “Just do it like before.” His eyes glazed when I reminded him that we don’t tell him how to paint so he shouldn’t…oh, never mind. That year we sold 39 of his paintings, 58 the next year, and 73 in 1984. We were selling a painting every other work day, on average. Oh, and that doesn’t count the 68 paintings of his that our gallery purchased outright over the nine-year period.
Eric and I were both grinning again. What I wanted to tell my dear friend, but didn’t, was that we had gone up to $22.50 a square inch. I didn’t want to ruin his lunch because he was having Rosalea’s black pepper-garlic tenderloin with autumn apple dip and free range okra on the side.
The story above starts my book on page 11 and 98 pages later I close with these words:
And now, twenty-two years after Eric’s death, I sit here past midnight, alone with only the fire to know my thoughts. The dancing flames hypnotize me, and in my reverie Eric’s spirit comes floating back on the faint smell of pinon. I sense that he’s out there somewhere, grinning down, because he knows that his paintings are now selling for 81 bucks a square inch. “See there Eric, I told ya.”
After retiring from the Air Force in 1970, I built an art gallery in Santa Fe that my wife and I ran for seventeen years. Since then, my energies have been directed toward excavation of a large Indian pueblo and writing books about art and exploration. I hope you enjoy my blog!