Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on August 18, 1998 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


JAMES JOYCE VS WINSLOW HOMER: Avoiding Hype, Hoopla and Horse Dookey

By Roger Dunbier, PhD


Who is number one, James Joyce or Winslow Homer?  That is right, the one who wrote "Ulysses" and the other who painted "Snap the Whip".  Both have been placed in their respective positions in recent rankings---Joyce in a list of best twentieth-century novels in the English language; Homer as the all-time American painter.  Can you compare the one with the other?  I would think not.  Comparisons are problematic, worthless or both.

This morning I pick up the newspaper to read that Phoenix ranks fifth as the most dangerous city in America for pedestrians, one position better [or is it worse?] than Providence, Rhode Island.  How do you compare the streets of Phoenix with those of Providence?  A San Francisco columnist years ago opined that there is more foot traffic on the canals of Venice than there is on the streets of Phoenix.  Still true.

Comparisons that lead to rankings will be made:  Marlon Brando with Charlie Chaplin, Erwin Rommel with Hannibal, Charles Lindberg with Leaf Ericson.  Believe me they have all shown up on the same lists with rankings attached.

The "Ulysses" selection has in recent weeks produced more idle palaver than there is in the book itself, and that is a bunch.  Much more controversy swirls around the next ninety nine on the one-hundred book list.  "How does this drivel rank higher than so and so1s masterwork".  Jack Kerouac---you must be jesting!"

When I first encountered the book rankings and read that they were selected by only ten jurors, I knew the list had to---what did I say above---be "both problematic and worthless." This limited number must mean that some books were selected on the basis of a single vote. As it turns out, Modern Library who sponsored the selections has admitted as much. They have, however, subsequently turned this reality around by the following world class dodge. Modern Library's Christopher Cerf was quoted as saying:  "I don't consider this a scientific or even a valid process.  I consider it a swell process.  It's got everyone I know talking about books.  Of course, he is in the business of selling these very books.  Swell indeed!

One of the Ten Jurors, who may or may not have even cast a ballot, was quoted as being "firmly against the notion of rankings . . . literature does not live in rankings."

By now you may be asking what is going on with your correspondent denigrating of the idea of rankings when he has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours creating numerous rankings of American artists. Well not so fast. I plead not guilty on the grounds that there are rankings and rankings. Let me explain.  In one category, there are the "isn't that interesting" lists, which the Modern Library rankings exemplify. In another, there are those, assuming they are realistic, that might indirectly lead to some action which it is hoped might improve a situation.  A perennial example being Arizona ranks next to the bottom in [name your social welfare] status.

Another category is the familiar consumer reports type where rankings might lead you Budweiser or Coors, Kodak or Fuji, Coca Cola or Pepsi. And saving the best for last, there is the kind of ranking that we here at ENCompass Fine Art have pioneered.  This is a category that relates why you and so many others do what you do.  It is a type of ranking that among other aspects leads and not like so many other rankings that only report or just tabulate existing conditions.

A conversation I had with a museum director will help explain this circumstance.  He was talking about his desire to obtain a painting by a particular well-known painter.  This picture was shown in a catalogue produced for a traveling exhibition that was hung at his museum.  I could not resist commenting that he and others involved in producing elaborate illustrated catalogues, actually books, were working against themselves.  For general circulation, they were producing literature extolling the virtues of individual artists.  These catalogues being obtained by the public were in turn creating demand for work by the listed and pictured artists.  Some of these readers---it takes only one with the money---then enter the auction wherein "your desired acquisition" is offered. And "you," Mister Museum Director, will either pay a lot more against this competitor or will lose the work entirely. You better be selling an awful lot of those catalogues for otherwise you are losing money on the deal.

"The final price realized will in one way or another be in major part determined by one or many references in art literature to that artist."

In other words, much or most of what is being bid at auction is based upon what the competitive participants know beforehand about the painter and the particular work obtained from sources other than the auction catalogue and auction house personnel. Inclusion in a popular coffee-table book might and usually does add thousands of dollars to the price of the artist's painting , and not necessarily the work pictured.

Inclusion in art books you haven't even seen will cost you, the buyer-collector.  Your competition will have been exposed to the books and for that reason, may counter a bid. The final price realized will in one way or another be in major part determined by one or many references in art literature to that artist.

Now it is interesting how much stock is put in the published results of auction house sales. We here at ENCompass certainly do.  But we are also cognizant of what underlies and motivates the bidders who create those prices so much relied upon.  If what takes place at an art auction could be likened to a house under construction, the final price is the roof, the bidding is the framework, but the foundation is found in all the information brought to the sale.  That's right, those museum catalogues, coffee table books, and listings in the "Who's Who's," etc.

The question arises, how do you put a number to this art literature increment.  Or more aggressively, "you can't put a number to it!"  I have heard both. The glib answer is "well you put a number to it when you bid $7,500. for that painting.  $7,500 is a number isn't it?"

Not at all glib would be to take a moment and look at some numbers, in the category of art literature. Our American art literature database which has been assembled over the last ten years has within it over 5,000 books.  These are indexed to all the artists so that it is known that Painter A is in book-entered number 3,673 along with 58 others or that Painter A is in a "monograph."  Either way, we can tabulate the links.  Significant reference to and/or reproductions of paintings by Painter A can be found in 23 books.

In this manner, the computer can tell us that as of August, 1998, the following numbers are: Artists with more than

Winslow Homer heads the list with 460 books and not coincidentally leads our price rankings, having recently replaced Jackson Pollock.

In exactly the same fashion, painters with 10 to 49 book links fall within a certain price range as do those with 50 to 99, 100 to 199, etc.  One can in fact utilize these linkages to predict with some limitations the range of prices realized at auction.  Why not, they are a tabulation of the principal causative element---the foundation as it were.

Turning this around, it can be maintained that NOT knowing these book links and other numbers can lead you down the road to the tender mercies of the Three H devils, which prevail outside of hard information in the Art Business:  HYPE, HOOPLA, and HORSE-DOOKEY.

Let us return once more to the ten (10) panelists picking the one-hundred best novels and the inadequacy of this type of ranking. Checking the computer I obtain a listing of 3,172 different authors for the over five-thousand titles. Each one of these authors has undertaken to describe an individual or several individuals.  Taken together they are tantamount to a formidable long term grand jury representing literary and investor interest in individual painters.  This obviously contrasts favorably with any  "ad hoc" small panel of experts. But more importantly it contrasts in the fact that these 3,172 have in their opinion created real value or as demonstrated above, in the values expressed in auction prices realized.  

When in the rankings, the literature position over and over again comes amazingly close to equalizing the strictly price ranking, this correlation can not be accidental. Furthermore, by using a formula available in our publications, one utilized our Price Ranking number to actually produce an appraisal for any painting or drawing by that artist.


As for James Joyce's "Ulysses", read it and apply your own number.  It is probably as good as any other.

© 1998 Roger Dunbier



About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

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