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The Heart of Art: Collecting Provincetown Art Becomes a Passionate Experience

At an age when most of her schoolmates were collecting things like stamps, match-box cars and Barbie dolls, Julie Heller began to collect Provincetown art.

“I started when I was 8,’ she says, explaining that she grew up in a family that frequented antiques shops, art galleries and museums - and spent every summer in art-rich Provincetown. “Of course, my buying power was very limited, (but) I saved the little money that would come my way, and, when something came along, I could buy it.”

Today, at 41, as the owner of the Julie Heller Gallery in Provincetown, Heller specializes in selling work by Provincetown artists of the past.

There’s definitely a market for it.

“I guess it’s a way of going back into history,” Heller says. In early Provincetown, the “commercial level was almost nil and the artistic level was so right. The creative juices were flowing everywhere.”

“There are those who make it their business to collect early Provincetown artists,” says Berta Walker, owner of the Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown. Her gallery features a small selection of early Provincetown art, including works from the estate of Charles W. Hawthorne, the artist generally credited with launching the Provincetown art colony in 1899.

Many of the artists who’ve worked in Provincetown are so famous that little, if any, of their art hits the Cape market. Prices on pieces by such artists as impressionist Childe Hassam, realist Edward Hopper and Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock are prohibitive to all but the wealthiest collectors.

But, Heller says, much early Provincetown art is quite affordable.

One option is to buy works on paper, which tend to be less expensive than oil paintings. While some Milton Avery paintings have sold in the $500,000 range, a minor limited-edition print by the modernist is occasionally available for around $1,500, Heller says. Important works by abstractionists Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell are way up there, too. But the low end for their prints is around $3,000. The majority of drawings by Karl Knaths, whose works have a cubistic flavor, are well under $1,000.

Another option for collectors of moderate means is to seek out works by lesser-known artists.

Often when a successful artist dies, the family doesn’t want to part with his or her work, Heller says. Then, as the years pass, they decide to sell the work to gain exposure for their loved one. In the meantime, even a successful artist may have been largely forgotten and has to be reintroduced to the art world.

“When you’re looking at the work of an artist whose reputation has sort of been forgotten, you’re usually facing a wonderful opportunity to buy something...before the work escalates back to full value,” Heller says.

A prime example is LaForce Bailey, who died in 1962, Heller says. “He was one of the foremost watercolorists in the United States...On the streets and in the boats, he captured Provincetown from the 1920s to the 1940s (in) beautiful large watercolors...You feel like you’re right there.”

Prices on his paintings range from $1,500 to $4,000, Heller says. They are “like a gift.”

Interest in paintings by Oliver Newberry Chaffee revived after a 1991 retrospective at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati (which was reprised, with a few changes, at the Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis last fall). Other Provincetown artists whose reputations are likely to make a strong comeback include William and Lucy L’Engle, Irving Marantz, James Floyd Clymer and Nanno De Groot, Heller says.

One art form peculiar to Provincetown, the white-line woodblock print, faded into obscurity until it was the subject of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC, in 1983-84, according to art appraiser and collector Frank Hogan, who has a business in Chatham.

The prints, which feature segments of color separated by white lines, were created by members of a group known as the Provincetown Painters. Using a technique developed by BJO Nordfeldt, such artists as Blanche Lazzell, Agnes Weinrich, Ada Gilmore Chaffee and Ethel Mars explored the possibilities of the white-line woodblock print from the mid-1910s through the late 1920s.

In the three or four years after the Smithsonian show, “prices went from $1 to $14,000 per print and still are up there,” says Hogan, a Provincetown native who has collected Provincetown art for 25 years. “Blanche Lazzell is the one who brings the highest prices.”

Hawthorne, an impressionist, is considered a great portrait painter, but prices on his works fluctuate widely. Because he was a teacher, often entrancing students with painting demonstrations on the wharves, “too many works he pushed out were studies,” Hogan says. “Those things that get out on the marketplace drag down the finished, signed work.”

Still his best works spark considerable interest. A large portrait of a lady brought $40,000 at a New York auction in 1988, according to Robert Eldred, owner of R.C. Eldred Co., an East Dennis auction house.

While Hawthorne had a school in the east end of town, landscapist George Elmer Browne ran the West End School. He, too, was an impressionist, but, because he spent considerable time in Europe and even studied with some French Impressionists, he used a much lighter palette than Hawthorne and most other American impressionists, Hogan says.

One Provincetown impressionist’s works have soared in value: Richard E. Miller portraits can bring from $250,000 to $1 million at auction, Hogan says. “He would do ladies with parasols in the garden with fresh flowers.”

Ambrose Webster, another artist who had a school in Provincetown, was the first modernist to come to the art colony, Hogan says. He specialized in snow paintings, executing them in oils with a heavy brush. His works, which are hard to come by, bring from $1,500 to $30,000.

Much easier to find are Provincetown scenes by Arthur V. Diehl - “the most prolific painter in the history of Provincetown,” Hogan says.

One of the most widely admired early Provincetown artists is John Whorf, who, early in his career, sold paintings to no less a compatriot than John Singer Sargent, Hogan says. He’s known primarily for his fresh-looking watercolors, particularly his marine scenes.

Prices on Whorfs have gone up steadily since the artist’s death in 1959, Hogan says. Ranging from $1,200 to $35,000, the watercolors come on the market quite often.

Interest is growing in Ross Moffett, an Iowa native who lived in Provincetown for 58 years. He was instrumental in founding the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and wrote a history of the organization, “Art in Narrow Streets.”

[Cindy Nickerson, Cape Cod Times Arts & Antiques]

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