Editor's note: The following article was published on December 24, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of Lonnie Pierson Dunbier. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at email@example.com.
Roger Dunbier: From His
American Art Evaluation System to AskART.com
"In the art world,
I'm the only person in America who talks about comparables"
By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier
Roger Dunbier was creator of a revolutionary system for determining fair market value for paintings by American artists. He devoted the last sixteen years of his life to this endeavor whose result was a unique method that empowered buyers and sellers to circumvent 'hype-master' promotion with tangible factual data.
Dunbier's accomplishments happened because of his original concept of applying economic theory to aesthetics; his willingness then to devote thousands of hours of his own labor to 'make it happen'; his utilization of ever-advancing technology and information availability; and his working in tandem with several people, most especially Charles (Chuck) Lefebvre, his computer programmer, and myself, his wife, who did a lot of data entry and publication editing.
In 1997, the year before he died, Roger, with one of his ever-handy Number 2 Ticonderoga pencils and yellow legal pads, wrote the following background on the origin of his evaluation system:
The same year that Roger 'penciled out' the above recollections, his accomplishments began receiving attention from media reviewers. Gary Rausch, in the "Get Out" section of the Scottsdale Tribune, 6/10/1997 wrote: "The tidal wave of future art buying may owe its beginning to a ripple created in Scottsdale. . . [Dunbier's] Scottsdale home, a few miles from the gallery district, is a mini-library of art books. Dunbier dissects and inputs a normal art book in 60 minutes." Referring to the first artist entry being Thomas Moran and to the fact that for each artist he assigned appropriate keywords relating to style, medium, schools and geography such as Grand Canyon for Moran, Dunbier told Rausch: "It all began with the Grand Canyon and wondering how many early day artists painted it. Now I can tell you how many artists painted New Mexico before 1940."
Rausch continued: "Dunbier's 'vacuum cleaner' approach to gathering information means the 'posy painters from Pasadena' are initially appraised with the greats. While the latter grow rapidly in the data pool, the former wither quickly . . . His exhaustive research -- he conservatively estimates 100,000 hours expended on this project -- yields a plethora of categories and sub-categories in his database."
Summing up his practical, economist approach to his project, Dunbier told Rausch: "If an appraiser wants to know the value of a house, he goes two blocks away to find a similar one. It's called comparables, the heart and core of appraisal in real estate. In the art world, I'm the only person in America that talks about comparables."
In an article, "One on One" by Vicki Stavig in the May/June 1997 issue of Art of the West, Dunbier was quoted about the long-time traditional approach of art appraisal, which was combining "telephone calls to experts with published prices found in the small number of American auction houses, mostly east and west coast. It was a time of minimal reliable information. It was also a time when artists living and working in mid-America seldom had works in major auction houses and very good early-day painters almost never had paintings come up for sale at auction."
Stavig wrote that "Seeking to level the 'playing field', Dunbier set out to develop a comprehensive system of inter-artist comparability, isolating artists' 'name values' or levels of recognition, from the elements of medium, size, choice of subject, etc." She quoted Roger as saying, "We're trying to tell people we'll bring them up to speed, make them experts." He also spoke to her of early influences with a father "who would schlepp me around to all parts of the country on his painting trips. I got interested in art and travel and later, in computers. Now I am a bridge character between the world of computers and the world of art."
Chuck Lefebvre and Roger, who were both living in Phoenix, Arizona, began working together in 1983. Chuck became technology advisor and programmer of delivery systems envisioned by Roger for an every-expanding resource of one-stop artist records.
In the beginning, in order to figure base ranges for establishing values, Chuck and Roger operated with a calculator, the most sophisticated informational handling device at that time. Then in 1987, they worked with a relational database on a Macintosh computer, which Chuck programmed from a platform called 4D or 4th Dimension. The relational aspect meant that the keywords, which ultimately grew to nearly 1700, could be used for customized focus lists that could be offered to collectors. Examples include 'Women Who Studied in Paris Before 1900", "Expedition Artists", "Students of Birger Sandzen", "White Mountain Painters", etc. In 1990, Roger, knowing he needed secondary market prices for accurate valuations, began linking prices realized from American auction house transactions to the respective artist records. These entries were labor intensive and involved tracking of auction schedules, subscribing to catalogs, and making the entries.
In July 1991, I married Roger, and signed onto his project immediately and nearly full time. Having been heavily involved in art research and writing projects, I quickly sensed the value of where he was headed with his growing database. Thus Roger, Chuck and I formed a collaborative trio. As idea generator, overseer and full time data entry 'guy', Roger was not only our leader, but also pace setter. I entered the auction and biographical data, and Chuck continually opened 'techie' doors by installing appropriate programs as they became available. For seven years, we carefully built artist records with auction prices, book and periodical references, keyword categories, specific price-affecting factors, and biographies. Because of directories we published of certain aspects of the data, the name Dunbier became increasingly linked to processes of fair market art evaluation.
Receiving encouragement and increasing respect among the art community, Roger felt rewarded and inspired to continue building. And then on September 18, 1998, he died suddenly from a rare gallbladder condition. The day before he had followed his usual schedule of spending most of the day at the computer. When he walked away for the last time, the artist records numbered 21,357. Looking at that achievement, I recalled him telling me that his first entry had been Thomas Moran, and the second, his father, Augustus Dunbier.
From the time of Roger's death, skilled people stepped in to insure a continuum of his work and to make sure that his efforts were not wasted. The story of moving from 'there to here' includes Chuck Lefebvre and myself. Today, the Internet site of AskART.com is the descendant to the unique concepts of Roger Dunbier.
When Roger died in 1998, I had been married to him for seven years. We had re-met on May 4, 1991, and had not seen each other for twenty-eight years when we had both lived in Omaha, Nebraska. There we had dated casually and had been in the same social group at the University of Omaha. Our friendship had begun in 1959 when I was a student majoring in English and Roger was a Geography instructor. On the campus, he was a 'celebrity', a returning former student who had made good, big time! He had graduated first in his class, summa cum laude from the University in 1955, and not only had received that recognition but had gotten a lot of press for state track meet record setting in hurdles and pole vaulting. His academic distinction earned him a four-year Marshall Scholarship to Oxford University in England, where again he excelled in both academics and sports. Earning with honors an undergraduate degree in Economic Geography, he was also selected for both the Oxford University and British National Basketball Team.
By 1959, when I first met Roger, he had returned to his hometown for an interim between earning his MA and Ph D degrees. And for many of us who subsequently became his 'groupies' he was a returning star -- a tall, lanky handsome German-Swede whose academic and sports reputations pre and post Omaha stirred the attention of many faculty members and students. And did I have a crush on him? You bet! And was I the only girl on campus who had a crush on him? No way!
Looking back, I'm sure some of his peers thought he was full of himself, but in my view, he had a lot to be 'full of', and he was one of the most fun, intelligent individuals I had encountered in my middle-America existence. His personality, conveyed by a loud, booming voice, totally filled a room. He was full of humor and facile with words, especially on erudite subjects. He spoke of things European, of liberal political ideologies, and of fellow Oxfordians from all over the world. And it seemed that if he wasn't talking, he was singing German beer drinking songs, especially when a lot of us English Department types plus one 'geographer' gathered regularly at the local bar, the Dundee Dell.
At UNO, the University Geography Department had no office space for Roger, so he was given a cubicle to share with novelist and professor, Carl Jonas, in the English Department. As Secretary to the Department Chair, I spent a lot of time in that area, and one of my strongest memories is of the raucous, loud, party-central laughter that emanated from the Dunbier/Jonas 'office'. Amazingly they both got very high marks from students for being well prepared and attentive, but when they got serious and worked was a mystery.
And also amazing, now that I look back from many years, is that I never heard him speak about art or art theory beyond mention of the fact that his father, Augustus Dunbier (1888-1977) was an artist. He was obviously very proud of his dad, who, known as "Gus", was quite prominent in Omaha. In 1959, I visited the Dunbier home several times at 49th and Izard Street in an old neighborhood called Dundee, which was near the University. Roger's mother, Lou Dunbier, was a tall Swedish woman, six feet in height, with a clarion voice and cheerful, hospitable manner. Gus, was a bit taller than she, spoke softly and smoked a pipe continuously. He was the obvious focus of the home, which was modest and relatively small except for Gus's studio, a high ceiling addition on the back of the house. There, he "held forth", standing at his easel painting and telling all kinds of laughter-stirring stories of travels in Europe and the United States. Invariably he offered a glass of his homemade wine, usually red, which I recall as being horribly bitter, and tasting like turpentine (an analogy I imagined). The studio was sun lit by skylights, and filled with wall hung and stacked paintings, several easels and the first collection of Southwest items I had ever seen, some which I later inherited and which included Hopi and Santa Clara pottery and Navajo Indian Rugs. I later learned of his long-time affiliation with Taos, New Mexico.
Being a north Omaha girl with a realtor father, homemaker mother, and 'dinner-every-night-at six o'clock' household, I felt somewhat out of place but very intrigued by the Dunbier home and studio. For me, being there was like stepping into a Salon, a place that offered a combination of challenging, intellectual conversation; interesting people joining and leaving; and visual stimuli everywhere. And much to my regret when I later wrote a book about Augustus Dunbier, I had been so distracted by the general ambience and likely so self-conscious about how I would be perceived, I paid no attention to what he was painting.
An aspect of Roger's life in those days that brought him added attention was his guardianship of teen-age multi-millionaire Eugene "Stormy" McDonald, Jr. Stormy's father was Commander Eugene McDonald of Chicago, founder of the Zenith Corporation, and his mother, the Commander's third wife, was allegedly an international traveler with lovers in many destinations. The couple had a courtroom divorce with testimony so sizzling that headlines appeared regularly during the trial in the Chicago Tribune. Apparently offered little stability with either parent, Stormy, age 16, was sent to Omaha to be cared for by a legal guardian, Roger. This arrangement had resulted from the recommendation of William Thompson, UNO Dean of Arts and Sciences and close friend of the Dunbiers and admirer of Roger. Thompson had suggested Roger's name to his Chicago brother, who was the Zenith Corporation physician and whose advice had been sought about 'Stormy' by the judge in the divorce resolution.
For several years in Omaha, Roger and 'Stormy' shared an apartment, and the doors were ever open to Stormy's best friend, Peter Fonda, son of Henry Fonda, who also had been sent away from home base because of family instability. Roger often spoke of this period in Omaha, when he was much challenged by trying to combine teaching with supervising the hormone-driven, marijuana-smoking Stormy and his friends, especially Fonda. Roger and Stormy remained close friends and moved to Arizona together in 1963. For Roger, who married three times and never had children, caring for Stormy was his only parenting experience.
The last time I saw Roger in those years was in London in 1962. He was back at Oxford working on his doctorate, and I was at the end of a traveling year abroad. In London, we went out on the town in his 'just-off-the-assembly-line-from-Germany' black Volkswagen. He was driving me back to my hotel, and we had a slow-motion collision at an intersection with a jalopy full of teenagers who had run a red light. No one was hurt; the red-light runners were full of jolly talk and laughter as was I. But Roger, uncharacteristically, was quiet. His new car had a nasty-looking fender dent. Obviously distraught and angry with me for being cheerful at his expense, he dropped me at my hotel, and said a goodbye that lasted 29 years. He told me many years later that this 'incident' with an uninsured driver had cost him several thousand dollars, an amount he had to borrow from his parents.
Returning to Nebraska, I taught literature at an Omaha private school, Brownell-Talbot, and then married an attorney, David Pierson, from Lincoln, Nebraska. Living there for the next 25 years, he and I raised a son and daughter, and in addition to my domestic life, I wore other 'hats' including American Art and American Literature.
Specializing in the writings of Willa Cather, Nebraska-born author, I earned a Master's Degree in 1977 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and was Research Assistant on a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to write a biography of Cather. I did post graduate work on a fellowship, taught composition and literature, and wrote a Ph. D dissertation about Cather's novel, A Lost Lady, now a published book. For ten years, I administered research projects at the University including at the Center for Great Plains Studies. While working professionally, I devoted volunteer time to the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, which housed the University's American art collection. I was a docent for fifteen years, a multi-term member of the Board of Trustees, the writer of the University-published centennial history of the collection, and co-founder in 1987 of the Sheldon's Statewide Touring Exhibition Program, now in its 20th year. Shortly after the Touring Exhibition's inception, I was hired to be its administrator, which meant developing and activating its outreach education potential. Tasks involved scheduling one-month venues in 12 Nebraska communities, writing the instructional materials, and then holding training sessions in each venue to train local docents to give public tours including school children of the approximately 20 works of art. For me, it was both a heady and frustrating time because of the extensive running around I had to do to find artist information for instructional materials. (right: Lonnie Dunbier)
I did extensive art-related script writing for the Nebraska Educational Television station (KUON-TV), which like the exhibit preparations, sent me many times to casually organized archives for artist biographies. One phase was curriculum writing for "Prairie Visions" a Getty Foundation funded project in Nebraska devoted to upgrading art education in Nebraska schools. Another part of my endeavors for ETV was script writing for The Picture Show I and The Picture Show II, a 'made for television' series of three to five-minute segments featuring either single works of art or individual artists from the collections of the Sheldon Gallery and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. The vignettes, whose Part I was narrated by Vincent Price, were/ and are still shown at intervals, like commercials, between regular programs.
I finished the Picture Show I in 1988, and the next year my husband Dave died of colon cancer. I continued working with the Sheldon Touring Exhibition program, and in addition agreed to write descriptive narrative segments for Nebraska Education Television for the Picture Show II. The format would be similar to Picture Show I but would feature artwork at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney rather than Sheldon Gallery.
To become oriented for the Picture Show II project, I went to MONA in February 1991. First, I met with John McKirahan, the museum director. He told me that in addition to short 3-5 minute segments, he wanted a special, much longer script with visuals on Augustus Dunbier, whose work was strongly represented at MONA. McKirahan then handed me a book, The Dunbier Companion, and said that he had just received it from Roger Dunbier, son of the artist, and that the book was about applying economic theory to art and that it was complicated reading. "I really don't understand it", he said. He went on to explain that Roger was living in Scottsdale, Arizona. I told McKirahan that I had known Roger 'years ago', and in response, he said, "you should call him" and handed me his address and phone number. (Several years later McKirahan, who said he was proud of his matchmaking, stayed with us in Arizona.)
I looked at the book and smiled to myself that this book about art had no visuals. Unrelieved, it was full of names, numbers and economic-theory verbiage. I knew I would never read it (I never did), but immediately it stirred my curiosity about Roger and the turn of mind that would prompt such a book. I also thought of that time 'years ago' when he had been a happy part of my college years in Omaha.
In late March 1991, I decided it was time to tackle the Kearney project and began by writing Roger a letter with the greeting: "Hello, hello, hello". I brought him up to speed on my life, asked about him, and explained about the writing project with MONA and of the need for special information about his father. Several days later, my phone rang, and a familiar voice opened a life-changing chapter of my life with the words, "hello, hello, hello."
He, being divorced and knowing I was a widow, said he would like to see me and asked if he could make a drive back to Nebraska within a few weeks. At that time, I was taking a seminar in the writings of novelist Willa Cather, and had reservations for the annual Cather seminar on May 4th and 5th in Red Cloud, Nebraska, the author's childhood home town. My hosts were friends who had purchased a local historic home, known as the Harling House in Cather's novel, My Antonia. On May 4th, I greeted Roger when he knocked on the side porch door, and we just started talking in the same goofy, teasing way we had thirty or so years earlier. The old sense of friendship, warmth, and respect returned immediately, and there was no mention that day of London and a banged up Volkswagen!
Roger and I married two months later on July 3, 1991, much to the surprise of many friends and most especially my kids who, following the advice of their mother, had dated their future spouses several years before marriage.
Aside from sharing many good memories and friends from the past, Roger and I had a new special connection, which was an intense commitment to the subject of American art. It was something we had never discussed in those earlier years in Omaha but something that became the focus of our next seven years together.
In that trip he had made from Arizona to Nebraska in May 1991, he was driving a 1987 Chevy Citation with a Mac II computer occupying most of the back seat space. It was huge! When we got to my home in Lincoln, he placed that 'thing' on my dining table, plugged it in, and showed me the results of his last seven years of entries, about 6500 artist names, all painters, with basic data of dates, states, methods, styles, locations and links to books, some auction results and keywords. He explained his goal of creating a one-stop repository for American art information. And I, who had spent the last 15 years searching in all sorts of random places for artist data for my museum and television writing projects thought 'oh my god, this is a solution to chaos.
I was hooked.
We lived at my home in Lincoln for a year while I continued to work in outreach education at the Sheldon Gallery. Roger used my dining table as his 'office' and, acquiring a more up-to-date model, worked with a Mac SE/30 computer.
I met Chuck Lefebvre for the first time when he came from Phoenix to be with us in Lincoln for several days so that in a time before computers 'talked' to each other online, he could copy several months worth of data additions from Roger's computer to his. Chuck also wanted to talk about future plans, and, I found out later, to 'look me over' to decide if I was a new team member for their mutual project, or a distraction that would keep him and Roger far apart. However, by the time he left, it appeared that Chuck's mind seemed at ease. I think he picked up on my enthusiasm for building the database, especially since I had given over what used to be a formal dining room to Roger as "computer central". During that Nebraska year, Roger and I made several visits to Scottsdale. On the first trip we bought me a laptop computer, an Apple Power Book 140, that Chuck programmed so that I could work on the database without pushing Roger off his computer.
In April 1992, we quit the Nebraska/Arizona commute and moved into a ranch-style home at 5424 North 74th Street in Paradise Valley, a block north of the border with Scottsdale and close to the gallery district where Roger spent a lot of time in conversation with art professionals.
On an acre of land and offering an uncluttered view of Camelback Mountain, the house was just right with much office and library space as well as walls and storage for the estate collection of Augustus Dunbier paintings that Roger brought into our marriage. A year or so later, we added another room for the huge art library that not only had hundreds of art books and auction catalogues but that grew monthly because of subscriptions to many art periodicals -- lifelines to keeping current with American art activity. (right: Roger Dunbier at home in Scottsdale, AZ)
On most days, Roger and I worked full time together, starting early AM, taking a lunch break in one of the many nearby Scottsdale restaurants, and then on into the afternoon and the evening. To get away from excessive togetherness and to pursue something I enjoyed, I enrolled in the two-year docent-training course at the Phoenix Art Museum. By 1994, I was an accredited docent and gave tours and then for several years chaired the Research Program.
A sacred part of each day for Roger was his post-lunch nap that consisted of about an hour of reading and an hour of snoozing, and then he was back at the computer, often until 9:30/10:00 PM with a break for dinner and always the 6:00 news. He said that by following that routine, he made two days out of one. It seems to have worked because the amount of work he accomplished on the computer was amazing to me.
About three times a week, he would go to libraries, including the Scottsdale public library, Arizona State University library in Tempe, and the Phoenix Art Museum library. My daughter, Katie, had given him a cloth book bag stamped "University of Pennsylvania" and from most of these trips, excepting the Museum where he just took notes, he returned with this bag holding five to ten art books whose data he entered into the computer.
From these publications as well as auction catalogues, visits to museums and galleries, and conversations with art professionals, he made lists for each artist of what he judged to be market strengths and weaknesses based on factors including subject, style, geography and auction prices realized. He asserted that determining true value of artwork was a process of going much deeper than an artist's reputation or name value to determine whether or not the work reflected what the artist was best known for. In other words, looking especially at sales history, does the artwork in question also have that artist's signature elements of style, medium and subject matter? Using this approach, a traditional landscape by Jackson Pollock or a landscape by Frederic Remington would not have near the same value as gestural abstraction for Pollock or Remington's western genre.
As information grew, Roger, facilitated by Chuck Lefebvre, built mathematical formulas into the computer program so that fair-market values could be figured for each artist. Auction prices became part of the equation, but not gallery prices because Roger believed that the 'second time around' or re-sale value in the public arena was the true, more pure indicator of fair price. When the database had about 12,000 artist records 'shaped up' to his satisfaction, Roger offered regularly updated books with methods to calculate values for two-dimensional work of these artists. With the exception of Chuck, most of us looking over his shoulder never understood exactly how "it" happened, but I do know that many people were pleased and amazed when they, armed with the Dunbier valuation method, bought and sold art.
Not only did the database grow from the original criteria of United States painters, but it was expanded by Roger to include Canadians and sculpture. However, three-dimensionality eluded his mathematical formulas for calculating values, and he found some of the new mediums and so-called styles hard to understand. Confronted with leading edge descriptive terms such as 'conceptual' and 'mixed media', he said many times that the definition of art had expanded far beyond any discussion he had ever had with his father. With both humor and contempt, Roger labeled many of these 'newfangled' works 'train wrecks'. However, well aware that his database of American art was about much more than his preferences, he kept his bias to himself and dutifully added 'train-wreck' artists.
I have never seen anyone so committed to a project as Roger unless it was Chuck Lefebvre, who for many years, was spending several hours, four to five nights a week at our house. This 'away-from-home' time meant a lot of juggling because Chuck was married with two young daughters, who, of course, wanted his attention. Much of his 'back and forth' with Roger carried little or no financial remuneration. Chuck did it gratis in addition to his day job, which provided the income that combined with his wife's salary to support their family.
I generally stayed out of Chuck and Roger's evening sessions, which were full of 'guy' camaraderie and of much talk of what should come next in the program. Before online transfer of data, Chuck would also use his computer to back up or save the newly added data from Roger's computer. Chuck's life got a lot easier when he could perform that process from his home. (right: Roger Dunbier and Chuck Lefebvre)
Chuck and Roger, twenty years apart in age, were the best of friends because of their commitment to building a computerized art management system. And yet, they were so different from each other. Chuck, French Canadian, is about five feet seven inches tall, and Roger, German-Swedish was six feet three. Chuck had no art background and had very little interest in any of the subjects with which Roger was dealing except the 'how' part of making it happen. And Roger had plenty of suggestions about 'what' should happen, but unlike Chuck, had no 'techie' capacity to make it happen. Working together, they often shared a lot of chortling and glee, especially when a breakthrough came such as the computer being able to create lists with keyword 'sorts'. Roger then used these for regularly updated books called Slice Editions because they were 'slices' of the database. On some of these victorious occasions, Chuck, who was younger and more agile than Roger, did what he called "a celebratory roll on the floor," a self-congratulatory gesture for both of them.
Counters to these celebratory times were what I called Roger's "hissy-fits" that invariably occurred when Chuck did a program upgrade and ordered Roger to stay off the computer, sometimes for a day or so but usually for just several hours. Knowing that in fact, improvements were being made, Roger often acted as though it was a waste of time. But usually he was very happy when he saw the results.
Roger and Chuck had met in 1983 when Roger, hatching his idea, went to a Radio Shack in Phoenix and asked the manager for a recommendation for a good programmer. They gave him Chuck's name and number, and their first meeting was at Café Casino at 24th and Camelback Road in Phoenix. From that time, they worked together, with Roger telling Chuck, "you can quit your job before your 30th birthday." Reality was that it was a year plus at least ten!
Chuck, from upstate New York, had become interested in computers as a young man when he visited his brother-in-law, Marcel Racine, at his computer job. Chuck learned the fundamentals of computer science from a vocational school he attended half-day during his junior and senior high-school years at Brockport, New York. This technology education was followed by a two-year stint in a community college. In 1977, he moved to Phoenix where he worked as computer operator, and later from Radio Shack, he bought his first personal computer, a TRS-80. From 1978 to 1982, he wrote bookkeeping software and cross tabulation on this machine, which kept him in contact with Radio Shack personnel, who in turn linked him to Roger Dunbier. Of this association, Chuck said: "The Dunbier project was the only one that consumed me, and it led to 15 - year long collaboration that stretched my abilities beyond my wildest dreams."
Other persons besides Chuck and myself with whom Roger spent a lot of time discussing theories about organizing American art data were David and Linda Sherer of The Taos Gallery in Taos, New Mexico; Joe Abbrescia, landscape and western figure artist, then of Scottsdale and later of Kalispell, Montana; and John Hazeltine of Orange, California, who was creating an American art website, Traditional Fine Arts Online. He asked Roger to write columns about "American Art Evaluation", something Roger much enjoyed, and which is published on http://www.tfaoi.com/articles/rd.htm
John and his wife, Barbara, visited us several times in Arizona, and on one of those get togethers, John suggested to Roger that he give the overall name of The Artists Bluebook to his emerging database. Roger adopted the idea, agreeing with John that he was, in fact, providing for buyers and sellers of American art a market-guide product parallel to the Kelley Blue Book for buyers and sellers of automobiles.
David and Linda Sherer 'road tested' the Dunbier inventory software program, and had many, many good suggestions about modifications. Chuck and Roger made several trips to Taos for installations and updates, and David was especially helpful in advising Roger about calculation aspects and in keeping "ears to the ground" about fair marketplace prices for various artists. From their galleries in Taos and later in Scottsdale, David and Linda sold many of the softbound books and later the CD-ROM, called The Dunbier System.
After Roger and I moved to Arizona together, Roger and Joe Abbrescia resumed their earlier habit of meeting once a week over coffee at a nearby Coco's to plot directions of the database. Roger had great respect for Joe's perspectives on the kinds of information collectors, gallery owners, and artists would find useful, and on effective methods of information delivery. He and Roger also experimented with imaging, and developed a software program for artist inventory, something that the Sherers and Joe continued to use until Joe's death in 2005. Although it served Joe well, it has never been made available beyond himself and the Sherers.
Joe often came to our house as well. I remember one day in particular in 1994 when Joe sat down with us in the living room and suggested a series of timely publications. It was a turning point conversation, which got us into the book printing and publishing business. Resulting were softbound publications that we updated every three months and had printed at the local Sir Speedy. I wrote the explanatory copy, and strove for plain, simple sentences, and the spelling-out of every step. We had some heated verbal tangles because Roger would get terribly impatient with me and my 'simple' English. Like The Dunbier Companion, the book I saw several years earlier at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, Roger just assumed that people would understand what he was up to with his many columns of names, figures and rankings with minimal explanation.
The books we published were:
In these books, by each artist name that fell into the top 10,000 were computer-assigned ranking numbers, which were results of Roger's quest for relative comparisons or 'comparables'.
Using his calculation formulas, Roger assigned each artist a GLARN (global artist's ranking number). Using these GLARN numbers, he, with Chuck's assistance, created every three months, the 10K, the top 10,000 artists ranked by the computer relative to each other in the following four ways:
For Roger, this was heady stuff, and he spent hours on these calculations, Amazingly, as he predicted, certain artists came zinging repeatedly to the top; some never budged from middling or middling-low positions; and others seemed never to pull up from total obscurity. For several years, Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock "duked it out" for top positions in all four categories. And breathing down their necks were Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt, Jasper Johns, and John Singer Sargent. We laughed that, if left together, they would likely have so little in common they could hardly manage to say hello to each other.
When Roger died, these rankings went with him because none of us 'left behind' understood his formulas. However, judging by the Top Auction Price listings that appear on AskART.com, some of these same artists are still 'racing each other around the track'.
Looking back from my perspective today of being able to see much of this accumulation of data plus more on the internet, the 'unhandyness' of creating and marketing those labor intensive books without benefit of current technology is so obvious. But in those days it seemed the only solution. And apparently, they served many, many people very well because we sold a lot of them. People still ask for copies as well as their single-volume descendant, The Artists Bluebook, which I compiled and edited for several years after Roger died.
Another feature to refine artists descriptions that Roger devoted himself to were Q Tables/Salient Features. In fact, he developed so much data for each of about 13,000 names that we never figured out how to market the entirety in hard copy. A print out would have been several thousand pages of names, each with five to ten custom price-affecting factors plus and minus. Tremendously valuable for appraisers and collectors, the Q Tables revealed data about price determining factors for each artist that I mentioned earlier in this text. Thanks to Roger, and later to David Sherer, who continued the project for several years after Roger died, about 16,000 artists are lying in the original computer program with these descriptive qualifiers.
In 1996, Roger and Chuck created Smartwalk(TM), a long-time visionary product of Roger's that allowed portability of data. Chuck programmed the hand-held Newton computer with the Q Tables linked to nearly 10,000 artists. Roger perceived it as an ideal portable-calculator program for the collector, whom he envisioned walking through galleries with it in his/her pocket or purse. If they saw something of interest, they could punch in the artist's name, size and subject and style description into the Newton, and "voila", the fair price value would appear. Seeing it in action was amazing, and for awhile, we thought Smartwalk loaded into Apple Newtons would become increasingly sophisticated with growing technology and that it could carry the whole Dunbier program. But our euphoria was short lived. In 1998, Apple discontinued the Newton altogether. (right: Roger Dunbier demonstrating the Smartwalk(TM) device; paintings by Augustus Dunbier in background)
We were discouraged for only a short time, because Chuck facilitated the CD-ROM, called the Dunbier System, which carried the entire database with search and sort capacities. It sold relatively well, both through advertising and by David and Linda Sherer, who then had galleries both in Taos and Scottsdale. Roger was so tickled with The Dunbier System that he told me in early 1998 that it was the culmination of all he and I and Chuck had been working towards. Because of conversation with Chuck and with John Hazeltine, who suggested to Roger that he should put his information on a website, Roger was aware of the Internet, but I never heard him express much interest in its potential.
Two days before Roger died in September 1998, he had been at the computer much of the day. The last glimpse I had of him there was of him reading a story to my four-year old grand daughter, Elizabeth, who was sitting on his lap. To me, this was an amazing vignette because Roger was generally terrified of small children-knew nothing about them, but he had grown to adore this special little person who called him "Papa Roger."
At his funeral service, my daughter, Katie, spoke affectionately of Roger and said that when he married into our family our IQ pool increased so drastically that we each got a boost of fifty points. He was a good companion to my kids, and they adored him for the way he combined his brain power and humor with loving attention to friends, family, and animals, especially cats and our neighbor dog, Mickey Mouse. And like Katie, I don't think I have ever known anyone who brought as much intelligence and mental energy to bear on certain topics including geography and histories of anywhere and, of course, American art. My idea of a nightmare was to have him as a Trivia Pursuit game opponent.
Most evenings before falling asleep, Roger fine-tuned his mind by reading for a few minutes from his bedside book, The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. His personal library reflected his wide-ranging mind. He filled several hundred feet of shelf space in our home with his books whose topics ranged through American, European, and South American history and economics. And one of those books, The Sonoran Desert, was by Roger Dunbier. Mentioned earlier, it was published in 1968 by the University of Arizona Press, and used as a geography textbook in universities, went into several printings. The book was his doctoral dissertation, and the choice of the desert subject reflected both his humor and pragmatism. He said he had decided on the topic when the winter cold and dampness of Oxford, England, led him to the question: "Where can I do my research that offers sun, fun and sustained warmth?" And so, motivated more by a quest for physical comfort than intellectual challenge, he became an Arizonan.
Roger told me that some of those early years in Arizona were difficult and tumultuous, fed by excessive drinking and other traumas including his grief from the 1965 death in Tucson of Stormy McDonald. The coroner's report called it suicide, but much evidence pointed to murder. In 1974, Roger, fearing for his future, enrolled himself in the alcohol rehabilitation treatment program at St. Luke's Hospital in Phoenix. From that time, he remained "on the wagon", something for which he was very proud, but also a circumstance that led him away from many friends and familiar social circumstances to a more solitary life. The result was long hours of introspective, creative thinking, and a determination to make some special, positive mark with his remaining years.
Several days after Roger's funeral, Chuck and I had a 'summit meeting' in Roger's office, off the library. It was evening, and Chuck arrived with a pint of Ben & Jerry's chocolate mocha ice cream, which we shared as 'comfort food'. Although the future without Roger seemed totally hollow and directionless, we made a pact to go forward. It was our memorial gesture to Roger, the least static of human beings. No way could either of us allow his more-than-'special' contribution to drop into oblivion.
For several months, Chuck and I just kept working in the office, going through motions as though Roger was still our Director. I kept up the artist data including the auction entries; Chuck addressed programming issues; David and Linda Sherer continued marketing; and David strengthened Salient Features that were so critical to accurate evaluations.
In late fall 1998, I borrowed money to kick the whole thing upstairs with some new associates, Ken Zerbe and Scott Grone, and with some borrowed money of mine. They, along with David Sherer and, of course, Chuck, did much to refine the way the data could be delivered to the public through the CD-ROM, which we continued to call The Dunbier System. Chuck went to work full time on the project as a paid employee, which was a first for him. Susan McGarry, former editor of Southwest Art, created a monthly newsletter called Pulse, which was a slicing of the data, and I continued with my daily inputting of auction records and biographies.
Judging by public response, our future was looking quite positive, but I couldn't sustain the financial drain, and we had to pull back. We could foresee that a web site was needed for delivery of our information, and Chuck had already located a web company in Missoula, Montana. However, this commitment required more money, and I just didn't have enough $$$ nor technological self-confidence to make the plunge.
Amazingly, our financial winding down coincided with a phone call from George Collins, a familiar telephone voice to me and a friend of Roger's since 1989. George, an investment professional and art collector from California, first met over the phone when George called Roger to buy an Augustus Dunbier painting, Sausalito, which he had seen advertised by Roger in Southwest Art magazine. The subject had special meaning for George because he had a window view of Sausalito across the Bay from his 32nd floor office in San Francisco. Apparently during the initial phone call, George, who had bought a copy of The Dunbier Companion at a bookstore in Scottsdale, expressed much interest as well as understanding of what Roger was doing with his developing database. To further exchange ideas, Roger drove the painting to George's home in Marin County. From that time, they had shared frequent telephone conversations, and I occasionally gave George a greeting, and also talked to him about several of our quarterly books he had purchased. He was invariably encouraging but at the same time made "subtle" attempts to suggest to Roger ways that the information could be delivered in plainer English. I agreed, and Roger listened but, as usual, had no interest in revisions. And in 1996, when George began talking about adding images to the artist records, Roger showed only mild interest.
Shortly after George's phone call to me in 1999, Chuck and I went to California to meet with him and firm details of collaboration. In 2000, we three became partners in AskART.com, a name suggested by George as appropriate for a database that most certainly had more content than any other American art focused website. George became President and CEO; I was Research Director, and Chuck was Technical Director. We worked together for the next several years with Chuck leaving in 2005, and me in 2006.
Now working as a full time professional in computer technology, Chuck does marketing and tutorials, and I pursue art research and related writing projects. He and I remain good friends and often reflect with pride on our time with Roger Dunbier when we, led by his vision, helped in the creation of a database that turned traditional methods of art evaluation "upside down".
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