The Art Forecast: Homer prints for sale in Yarmouth

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YARMOUTH — The summer celebration of the centennial of Winslow Homer’s life (1836-1910) has focused a lot of attention on Homer’s early career as a graphic artist and illustrator.

The Saco Museum has drawn on its own collection and those of the Farnsworth Art Museum, the University of Maine Museum of Art, and several private collectors to mount “In a Place by Himself: The Graphic World of Winslow Homer” (through Nov. 14). And the Portland Museum of Art has launched an interactive online database of the more than 450 Homer graphic works given to it by Peggy and Harold Osher.

Dr. & Mrs. Osher purchased a few of their Homer graphic works from a Yarmouth collector and dealer and, now, you can, too.

Through the month of August, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) has consigned 86 Homer illustrations to Pillars, an art and antiques shop at 11 Yarmouth Crossing Drive, just off Main Street. Matted and displayed in racks and on the walls of the antique shop, the Homer graphics are accessible and affordable.

Where a Homer painting might fetch tens of millions of dollars, the American master’s graphic works, mostly wood engravings excised from 19th century issues of Harper’s Weekly, sell for between $125 and $750, with the majority in the $200 to $300 range. The images include many of Homer’s well-known illustrations of Civil War army life to nostalgic renderings of the social life of his day.

The Yarmouth collector has been speculating in art since he moved to Maine from Connecticut in 1982. Having disposed of a collection of nautical art and artifacts prior to the move (“At one point I had enough whale bone to make a whale,” he said), he realized that there might be money to be made in retirement dabbling in art.

“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff I buy is at local auction,” he explained.

A stack of old Harper’s Weekly purchased for $5 might yield collectible graphic works by illustrators such as Homer and Thomas Nast. Over the years, he learned what issues were most valuable and bought accordingly.

“All of my buying from the very beginning was a matter of investment and resale,” the collector said, “as opposed to making a permanent collection.”

What intrigues the Homer collector, he says, is how it is possible to speculate in art based solely on a little knowledge and a little cash. Though he has acted as a buying agent for collectors and dealers spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of his purchases have been made for relatively little money.

“With a modest pocketbook,” he said, “I find I can score very nicely.”

For a mere $90, for example, he once picked up a pair of prints that turned out to be Rembrandts. Though printed from Rembrandt’s plates after his death, the prints are still worth thousands of dollars.

All of which is not to say that the collector’s interest in art is completely mercenary. As he surveyed the Pillars exhibition, he pointed out interesting details, such as how Homer inserted himself in a crowd watching Fourth of July fireworks and how a 19th century lady has intentionally dropped her glove in hopes of attracting the attention of a military man.

And he is particularly fond of “Noon Recess,” an illustration of a teacher giving a student recess detention, because one of his daughters is an educator. She and a group of her colleagues once purchased a copy of the print as a wedding present.

“I got the nicest note from the bride,” he said.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth and also writes The Universal Notebook column weekly for The Forecaster.

Sidebar Elements

“Noon Recess,” an 1873 wood engraving by Winslow Homer, is one of the Harper’s Weekly pieces available at Pillars in Yarmouth.