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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Collecting Fantasy Art #5: Lail, It Rhymes with Gail

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Collecting Fantasy Art #5:

 

Lail, It Rhymes with Gail

 

By

Robert Weinberg

 

 

Copyright  © 2011 by Robert Weinberg

 

~ One ~

The 1980’s were a boom time for science fiction art collectors.  The original fans of early science fiction were growing old and selling off their collectibles to the fans of the present.   Artwork, which had always been considered of only minor interest to early fandom was not valued like the modern paintings offered in convention art shows.  Old fans were willing to let it go cheap.  And there was a small but anxious market of young collectors willing to buy every piece that came out onto the market.

Much of the stuff never even brought its owner a brief few minutes of fame.  Consider, early in 1984, how  one afternoon I received a letter from a book dealer in Buffalo, New York.  He described buying a collection of paintings from a house sale in the city.  Among the several pieces he thought I might be interested in, was a Kelly Freas’ painting that he didn’t recognize.  It was mostly done in shades of red and featured a woman playing bagpipes and some aliens holding their ears.  Not much of a description, but enough for me to instantly recognize one of Freas’ earliest paintings, done as a cover for Planet Stories magazine.  I called that dealer that evening and bought that painting from him.  Along with the Freas, I bought a Robert Fuqua painting of a man fighting what looked like a portable vacuum cleaner that I felt certain was the cover for the first issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine.  When the art arrived at my home a week later, I was pleased to see that I had guessed right on both pieces.   I kept the Freas painting, which I liked very much, and sold the Fuqua to my friend, Sid A. from Michigan, who appreciated the chance to pick up a painting from 1939 at a reasonable price.

A few months later, I learned a lesson in collecting I never forgot.  In 1976, as described in part one of these memoirs, I had taken, on consignment, several hundred paintings done for Galaxy magazine to the World SF Convention in Kansas City.  My partner in this venture was another collector, Victor D.  We didn’t sell many pieces, though my friend, Sid A. had bought a number of the sexy Beacon paperback covers done to illustrate Galaxy Novels of the time.  After the convention, Victor had gone through the paintings very carefully and pulled out a few sleepers that we hadn’t noticed in our cursory examination of the pieces in Kansas City.  He had bought those paintings for his own collection.  Included in the batch was a Virgil Finlay original and an Ed Emsh humorous painting.  Ten years later, while talking to Chicago collector Alex E. at a World SF Convention Art Show, Victor mentioned owning the Emsh.  Alex E. grew very excited.  A fanatical Ed Emsh fan, he had always wanted that particular piece.  He had tried to buy the original from Robert Guinn, the magazine publisher, but the painting was nowhere to be found.  Guinn had misplaced it and later on, Victor had bought it.  Now, Alex had learned from Victor that the art still existed and was available for the right price.  All he needed was to make a trade with Victor.

When Alex wanted something, he really wanted it.  He would not take “No” for an answer.  Victor wanted something better than another Emsh painting for his Emsh original.  He decided after much thought he wanted a Kelly Freas painting.  Alex agreed even though Freas paintings were easily worth double an Emsh painting at the time.  Then, Victor threw Alex a curve ball.  He wanted, he decided, a Freas painting with a beautiful girl in a skimpy outfit.  Freas could paint sexy women when he tried and sex in science fiction paintings brought top dollar.  And Victor wanted a painting worth the most money possible.

Alex E. didn’t complain. He wanted that Emsh painting, no matter what the price in art.  He came up with a Freas painting with a near naked sexy girl.  It was the cover for the second part of the serial, “The Door Into Summer” as published by Fantasy & SF magazine.  Victor accepted the painting in trade with Alex and took possession of the Freas.

Six months later, Victor grew tired of the Freas and traded it to me.  The impossible had happened.  So much for my predictions. I now owned the original cover paintings for the first and second serial installments of Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer.  Immediately, I contacted Al, the guy I had met at the 1976 World SF Convention in Kansas City, to see if he still owned the third and final cover painting for the serial.  I had passed on that cover, though it had been priced cheap, because I had felt certain at the time I would never obtain the second cover painting for the novel.  Now that I had that piece, I really wanted the third cover so I would have all three paintings for the novel.

No such luck.  Al had sold the Freas painting at the convention.  He didn’t remember who bought it, and he didn’t even remember how much they had paid for it.  The painting was long gone.  I had had a chance to buy it back in Kansas City and had passed it by.  

I learned my lesson that day.  Only too well.   Never pass up a painting of minor importance because someday that minor meaning might explode.  It was a difficult lesson to learn, but an important one.  It’s one I have never forgotten.

~ Two ~

Around the same time this incredible art adventure was taking place, a new voice was joining the small but extremely active science fiction art community.  This new collector, Steve K., was the son of a one-time SF book dealer and small publisher, Mr. EK.  Steve’s father had left the SF field in the mid-1950’s and divorced Steve’s mother.  Steve had remained with his mother in Chicago while his father, Mr. EK had moved to California.  Steve had not grown up reading science fiction, but there had been an SF cover painting, a St. John Amazing Stories cover, hanging in his bedroom.  Though he didn’t read science fiction, Steve was a die-hard SF Art fan.  He was anxious to collect original art.  

Steve was making the rounds, seeing art collectors all over the country, accompanied by his father.  Mr. EK. made the introductions, but it was Steve who was looking to make the contacts.  Steve understood that in such a small field, the only way to find rare artwork was to meet and get to know the major collectors.

Steve and his father first went and met with Forry Ackerman.  Though Mr. EK had issues with some of the best known SF fans of the 1940’s, Forry wasn’t one to carry a grudge.  He was happy to see Steve and his father and made them welcome at his huge home filled with all sorts of SF memorabilia.  Steve asked if Forry might trade art and Forry told Steve he would trade originals from his collection for originals by Lawrence Sterne Stevens.

Next, Steve traveled cross country, visiting Gerry de la Ree in New Jersey.  Though Gerry didn’t trust Steve’s father, he did like Steve.  When Steve told Gerry that Forry wanted Lawrence art, Gerry sold Steve a stunning Lawrence painting that had been sitting on Gerry’s wall for longer than anyone could remember.  Worse, Gerry sold it to Steve for $70.  A number of collectors who had visited Gerry numerous times over the years, wondered why he had never offered the painting to them, instead of Steve.  I was one of those collectors.  Gerry had no real answer for that question.  It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that signaled he was getting older and making odd decisions.

Steve next  came to visit me in Chicago.  He called and introduced himself and asked if he and his father could stop by that weekend.  He gave Gerry as his reference.  As soon as I got off the phone, I called Gerry to make sure everything was on the up-and-up.  I was told all about their visit to Gerry’s house and figured it would be okay if they visited me. I wasn’t worried that Mr. EK would steal some art from me, but I did want some assurance that dealing with him would not get me blacklisted in the SF community forever.

The visit went about as well as expected.  I decided to let Steve take the Lawrence painting I had bought from Alex E. when I first started collecting art, to trade with Forry.  He promised to get me something better.  I also sold him some art.  It was a pleasant visit and I found that I liked Steve.  He lived in Chicago and we became good friends.   

A few weeks after his visit, Steve called and invited my family to a barbeque at his home.  We went and had a good time.  At the barbeque, Steve showed me two Freas paintings he had gotten from Forry.  He had traded the Lawrence he had bought from Gerry along with the Lawrence I had given him on consignment for the two Freas paintings.  One of the two was another one of the Freas cover paintings for Planet Stories.  This one was for "The Lost Tribes of Venus."  Painted entirely in blues, with mermen and mer-women under water, it was quite spectacular.  But, so was the other painting.  It was the Astounding SF cover for “The Miracle Workers,”  a 1958 short novel by Jack Vance.  Forry had given it to Steve after remarking that he wasn’t sure if it was a painting or a poster.  The art was in a cheap glass frame so could have been either.  I carefully removed the picture from the frame.  It was definitely an original, not a poster.  I knew that for a fact even before I examined the piece.  That painting had never been done as a poster.  It had to be an original and was one of the finest Freas paintings ever done.

Steve invited me to take either painting as a trade for the Lawrence I had given him.  It was a difficult decision.  I felt that if I took the Planet cover, thus giving me two of the series, I would want to find the rest of that series of paintings which had been sold to science fiction fans in the mid-1940’s.  It would be a life-long quest. Taking “The Miracle Workers” would give me an equally striking painting and not trap me into some crazy art assignment.  So, of course, I went with “Lost Tribes.”

Steve kept “The Miracle Workers.”  I returned home with the two Planet Stories covers, swearing I wouldn’t waste my time searching for the rest of the series.   Needless to say, I lied.  I searched and searched.  After reading through dozens of old fanzines published in the 1950’s, I stumbled across one lead.  A well-known couple who collected artwork had bought one of the Planet Stories covers back at a convention in the late 1950’s.  There was no mention of them ever selling it, and by luck alone, I happened to know them and have their phone number.  I called, not knowing what to expect.  Yes, they still had the painting I was told politely.  No, they were not interested in selling it at that time.  Perhaps they would be willing to let it go sometime in the future, but if they did sell it, they would want top dollar for the piece.  A mid-five figure price was mentioned.

To say I was discouraged would be an understatement.  I mentally marked off their painting from my list of future possibilities.  Too bad, as it was a great illustration of an alien slave market on a far planet, with a near naked Earth woman on display in front of a bunch of lecherous aliens.  Though I had to admit I thought such ideas, such as a slave auction in space, to be not only sexist but outlandish.  Sin in space seemed to stretch the bounds of credibility.

Brought back to painful reality, I traded the “Lost Tribes” to Steve K for “The Miracle Workers.”  He was pretty square about it.  Several years later, I traded Steve my other Planet Stories cover by Freas, the picture of a female bagpipe player defeating aliens on a red planet.  By now, I had come to realize it illustrated the Leigh Brackett story, “Mars Minus Bisha.”  Steve still has both Freas paintings.  As far as I know, he’s never felt the need to find the rest of Freas’ artwork for the magazine.

I need to finish off this story with a mention of what happened to that alien slave market painting by Freas.  Some years later, a friend of mine confessed that he had always wanted to own a Freas cover for Planet Stories.  Since he knew that Steve would never let go either of his two, did I know of anyone who might consider selling another one?  With this friend, money was no object.  I contacted the woman with the Freas slave market painting, now identified as “The Ambassadors of Flesh,” a Poul Anderson novelette.  I made an offer  based on the amount that had been quoted me back in the mid 1980’s.  The money was right and the owners were motivated to sell.  I made a nice commission on the deal.  It pays to remember who has art, even if you don’t buy the piece yourself.

~ Three ~

A few months after Steve and I concluded our trade deal with Forry Ackerman, another opportunity involving a major art collection arose.  Realizing it required more money than I had available for business or pleasure, I knew that the only way I would be able to swing the deal was to bring in a partner.  Rationalizing that Steve, being a lawyer and not an art dealer, would be the least competition in the near future when it came time to sell or trade the art acquired, I asked Steve if he was interested in partnering with me on a deal.  My friend, Sid A., who had been collecting art for as long as I had been selling the stuff, had called me the previous day and told me that he needed to sell his large art collection.  Since I was the dealer who had sold him the most art, at the best prices, he felt it was only right to offer me first choice on the paintings he was letting go.  While it was a generous offer, Sid also made it quite clear that I only had a window of a few days to select the art I wanted.  After that, it would be available to anyone.  So, I had no time to waste.  I made arrangements with Steve to leave that Saturday morning at the crack of dawn.  He was there bright and early and off we went.  

It was a five hour drive to Sid’s house in the suburbs of Detroit.  The plan was simple.  We would drive there in the morning, arrive there by noon.  Take Sid out for lunch and discuss prices.  Then examine the paintings at his house, select the ones we wanted, pay for them, stack them up in the back of my station wagon, and head for home.  Get back by midnight.  A major art deal done in a day.  Or so we hoped.

Things progressed pretty much according to plan.  While it was a long drive, it was a fairly easy one almost entirely by highway.  Steve didn’t know much about science fiction but he was intelligent and we passed the time going to Detroit playing word games.  Plus, we tried to guess why Sid was selling his collection.  Neither of us came close to the real answer.

We met the reason when we arrived at Sid’s home.  A shrewd businessman, Sid had made his money in Army-Navy Stores.  Single, he had spent his money on things he liked.  So he had a nice, comfortable house in the suburbs of Michigan.  He drove a Lincoln Continental.  He collected science fiction first editions and SF original art.  Life was good to Sid.  Until he had fallen in love.

The woman who had caught Sid’s eye was a divorced science fiction fan with a young son.  I only met her only that once, for a few hours, at lunch the day we bought Sid’s art collection, but that was enough.  She was cold, not the least bit friendly.  She made it quite clear that she had no time for Sid’s old friends from when he was single.  And that included us.

Sid’s wife was the reason he was selling his art collection.  Evidently, she didn’t like his house.  It had been bought by Sid alone. For him alone.  At least, that was the way she felt.  Sid’s wife wanted for them to buy a different house, one that they picked out together.  The same was true about his car.  Besides, she wanted something much more practical.  They needed a station-wagon.

To help finance his new house, his new car, and his new life, Sid was selling his home, his Lincoln, his rare book collection, his rare magazine collection, and his art collection.  He said he didn’t mind letting the stuff go, but I knew he was lying.  No one, no matter how much they are in love, sells that much of his collection without some pain.  

I had been selling Sid artwork ever since the third PULPcon, in 1974.  He had arrived looking for art, and I had been the dealer who sold him a few pieces.  The next year, he had come to the show looking for more art, and again I had delivered.  After that, I was pretty much Sid’s source for original science fiction paintings.  Until his new wife came along and decided the art had to go, along with the books, magazines and paperbacks.

He had eclectic tastes and I had specialized in finding eclectic paintings for him.  Among the interesting stuff in his collection were four cover paintings done by Robert Stanley for Beacon Books, nominally a publisher of soft-core porn, illustrating Galaxy Science Fiction Novels.  The novels in question were The Secret People by Raymond Jones, retitled The Deviates; Odd John by Olaf Stapledon; Virgin Planet by Poul Anderson; and Mars Child by Cyril Kornbluth and Judith Merril (as Cyril Jude) transformed into Sin in Space (above left).  They had been part of the large group of paintings Victor D. and I had been given by the publisher of Galaxy Magazine to sell at the 1976 Worldcon.  Sid had been one of our very few customers.  Now, here it was, years later, and I was buying back the one decent sale made at that convention.  It was a comedown, to say the least.

Sid also had a number of Ace cover paintings, including one of the few I had offered that was painted by Alex Schomburg.  While Schomburg was famous for his science fiction magazine covers, his numerous Golden Age Comic book covers, and his Winston Juvenile SF paintings, he rarely did paperback covers.  Doug Ruble had only turned up three paintings by him in all of the hundreds of Ace science fiction book covers he had gotten from the publisher.  Sid had jumped at the chance to buy one of his pieces, the cover for Henry Kuttner’s The Well of the Worlds.   

Other Ace covers that I bought back from Sid that afternoon included two paintings by Emsh: The Towers of Toron and Recruit for Andromeda.  It had been eight years since I had sold Ace covers and already there was a strong secondary market for those pieces.  I knew I would have no trouble selling those pieces to other collectors.

However, the most interesting paintings in Sid’s collection were not pieces I had sold to him.  A sharp businessman, Sid had found a unique method of obtaining excellent pieces of art for his collection from the top artists working in the field for low, low prices.  All it took was establishing a successful publishing company.

Sid A. and his lawyer, another SF fan, Alex B. had always wanted to publish science fiction.  They felt that many of the best novels in the SF field appeared only in paperback, instead of debuting in hardcover.  That was the case because there weren’t many publishers willing to take a chance publishing new SF novels in hardcover.  Sid and Alex felt that they had the good taste to be able to predict if a novel would be a success in hardcover and that by publishing hardcover editions of the best new SF novels they could make lots of money.  

Along with publishing new SF novels in hardcover, the new company needed to obtain good art for their dust jackets.  That was where Sid stepped in.  He would commission some of the best artists in the SF field to paint cover pieces for the new books he was publishing with Alex B..  However, a clause in the contract with the artist always made it clear to the artist that if Sid wanted to keep the painting used for the jacket of the book he could, by paying the artist a small additional fee.  So, Sid commissioned some of the best artists working in the SF field to do cover paintings for major new SF novels, and then afterwards he was able to pick and choose among those paintings to keep them for himself.

Sid bought just about every cover painting done for his publishing company.  Alex gave Sid, as art director, free reign to use the best artists he could find, so their press hired Michael Whelan, Rowena, Paul Lehr, Alex Schomburg, and many other top artists as dust jacket artists.  And Sid bought the paintings they delivered.

Now, he was being told to sell those paintings by his new wife.  A good husband, he was doing what his spouse wished.  But, I could see by his forlorn looks as he let Steve and me look through his stock of commissioned paintings, he was not happy.  Fortunately for him, though Steve and I liked all of the pieces done for his publishing company, we could not afford the sale prices Sid insisted the paintings sold for.  We did buy about half of the company paintings, but left the rest.  Some time later, I heard that no one else was willing to pay Sid’s prices on the paintings either.  Desperate to get some money for the pieces, Sid made a deal with his partner in publishing, Alex B., to purchase the artwork, thus keeping it in the company.

That night, after dinner with Sid and his new wife, Steve K. and I drove back to Chicago.  My station wagon was filled to the top of the cargo area with framed paintings.  We had dozens of pieces, some of them huge, which we had to divide up. 

Each of us had certain pieces that we wanted for sure, along with others that we thought would be great as trade bait with other collectors.  We bartered and traded the entire trip back to the Windy City.  The best piece I ended up with was a large wraparound cover painting by Rowena.  The best piece Steve got was the last SF painting done by Ed Valigursky for a dramatic robot novel, The Humanoid Touch.  We were both quite pleased with what we got.

Years later, I heard through the grapevine that Sid and his wife had parted.  I wasn’t surprised.  

~ Four ~

In earlier articles, I’ve written about my love affair with the art of Virgil Finlay.   Without question, my favorite illustrator of science fiction is Finlay.  The only artist who appeals to me almost as much is Edd Cartier, and their art is so different that I could have a hundred Finlay’s and a hundred Cartier’s and not feel a twinge of regret.  Actually, I do have a hundred Finlay’s.  But I only own twenty Cartier originals, so no comparison between the two artists in possible.  Still, I’m willing to try if the opportunity ever arises.

I’ve described in detail visiting Gerry de la Ree’s home where he had a large group of stunning Finlay originals on display.  Gerry helped Finlay sell a large group of his originals when the artist developed cancer and needed money to pay his bills.  Gerry had access to the many original illustrations the artist had gotten returned from the magazines where they originally appeared over the years.  The sale of originals for the artist gave Gerry first choice of a large group of illustrations.  Plus, he saw many other pieces that never were offered to fans for sale, because he bought them before they were ever listed.  Because of Gerry’s “in” with the artist, it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever assemble a Finlay collection to match his.

I began collecting Finlay originals with no thought of competing with anyone.  The focus of my collection was on the 1940’s and 1950’s.  The 1940’s because I felt the period from 1940 to 1943 was the first “Golden Age” of Science Fiction and I wanted art that illustrated some of those great stories.  My attention to the 1950’s was more personal.  I had started reading SF in the late 1950’s.  My first memories of science fiction were of that period.  It was a time when I had bought my first magazines and first paperbacks.  So, I was anxious to recapture my memories of that time and place.

By the end of the 1980’s, I owned a fairly large and diverse collection of SF art.  Luck had played a major role in my assembling my collection.  A business that made a healthy profit also helped, especially when it came to paying the bills.  And, the contacts I made as a book dealer handling science fiction proved invaluable.

My collection of Virgil Finlay originals numbered somewhere around 25 to 30 pieces.  Fifteen of those had come from the deal Victor D. had made with an editor of an Astrology magazine back in the late 1970’s.  Those pieces were okay, but only a few of them were what I considered top of the line.  The best Finlay originals I owned were those I had bought from other collectors.  Several of those were spectacular, filled to the bursting point with stipple marks and fantastic figures.  My favorite of those better pieces was the art done for Sax Rohmer’s story,” Tcheriapin" (at left) which had been published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in July 1951.

All of that changed in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s.  Because of one woman.  Her name was Lail.  I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it, until my friend, Chuck Miller, told me.  It rhymed with Gail.  While it was an interesting and somewhat unusual first name, it was her last name that got my attention. Finlay.  Her name was Lail Finlay.  And it was no coincidence.  She was Virgil’s daughter, his only child.

Chuck was the person who put me in touch with Lail.  He and his partner in publishing, Tim Underwood, were planning to publish a series of Virgil Finlay art books.  As such, he and Tim had been contacting Finlay art collectors throughout the country to see if they could borrow some Finlay paintings to use as front and back covers for their volumes.  I offered them the use of my Finlay cover painting done for Fate magazine.   I also volunteered to provide them clear copies of my better Finlay originals, in case they wanted to reproduce some of them in their books.  

In doing so, I was following good advice once given me by my father.  He said, “Always offer to do a good deed without thought of repayment or compensation.  People remember selfless acts.  In time, your good deed will be returned to you eight times over.”  Exactly where my father picked up that saying, I don’t know.  In particular, I always wondered about that mention of repayment of eight times.  No matter.  I had always tried to follow that advice and it never steered me wrong.  In this case, it generated a phone call one afternoon from Chuck.

He called to tell me about a list Lail Finlay was putting together of originals by her father that she wanted to sell at auction.  Chuck had no idea why Lail was selling the pieces, where they had come from, or what Lail wanted for them price-wise.  He just knew she was looking to sell them, and planned to take offers for the originals. He was merely trying to find her some customers.  He had recommended that she send me her list.  If I wanted to talk to her about it, he gave me her phone number.

I learned from Chuck that he and Tim were working with Lail on the Finlay art books.  Lail’s mother, Virgil’s wife, Beverly, had died in 1979, so Lail was the last of the Finlay clan.  She had married and moved to Puerto Rico years ago, but now was back living in the USA.  She was in Florida, running a business.  Chuck had passed along to her around six or seven names of Finlay collectors.  He didn’t remember the names of everyone, but he did remember giving her Bob Lesser and Gerry de la Ree.

While I didn’t panic, I must admit when Chuck mentioned those two people, my heart skipped a beat.  Bob Lesser was a collector of original pulp paintings.  He had gotten into the original art field years ago, but he had not been a force in science fiction until the mid-1980’s.  That was when he had sold his huge collection of Disney memorabilia and had focused all of his attention on pulp artwork.  Lesser wasn’t particularly interested in science fiction.  He liked all the pulp genres, and science fiction was merely one aspect of his collecting mania.  Still, in the past four or five years, he had spent many thousands of dollars out-bidding and out-buying most ordinary SF collectors when it came to rare art.  He wasn’t interested in Virgil Finlay’s technique or incredible style.  Lesser was only interested in the fact that Finlay had painted for the SF pulp magazines.  Those were the covers he wanted, and he was willing to pay double, triple, or even five times what they were worth to add them to his collection.

Gerry, of course, was Mr. Finlay, with the best Finlay art collection in the world.  No doubt, he knew Lail.  He had known Virgil quite well and had helped the artist sell a number of his originals.  There was no question in my mind that he had a special relationship with Lail.

I didn’t panic.  My heart merely turned to ice.  I knew that whatever originals Lail Finlay planned to sell, I had little chance of getting them.  I wondered aloud if it was even worth contacting her.

It was my wife, Phyllis, who cheered me up.  Bob Lesser, she pointed out, only collected science fiction pulp magazine cover paintings.  He wasn’t interested in black and white interiors, which most likely was what Lail Finlay had for sale.  Plus, while Finlay had done nearly a hundred paintings in his career, only a small number of them had appeared on science fiction pulps.  It seemed unlikely that Lail had many of those for sale.  If she did, most likely I was out of luck.  But, the odds were good that she had other material, stuff that Lesser would find uninteresting.

As for Gerry, Phyllis felt I was worried for no reason.  It was the end of the 1980’s, the beginning of the 1990’s, and Gerry was stuck in the 1970’s.  Like many older fans, he hadn’t adjusted to the new prices collectibles were selling for.  At times, I had a difficult time making that same adjustment, and I was involved in a business that depended upon rising book prices to pay the bills.  There were no $7.50 books anymore.  They all cost $14.95 or more.  The same was true about original art;  Finlay black and whites no longer sold for $100.  You had to add a zero onto that price to buy a major Finlay now.  It was a difficult lesson for collectors to learn.  Many couldn’t, especially those old timers who had bought most of their collection when prices were low.  If Lail Finlay was going to put up pieces for bid, I had better make sure my offers were realistic, my wife warned.  Gerry’s prices weren’t going to win many originals.

Summoning all of my courage, I called Lail.  She was pleasant enough to talk to.  She owned a business in Florida and was hoping to expand her shop and needed some extra money to do so.  That was the reason she had decided to sell some originals.  She had made up a list of a dozen or so black and whites and a painting.  The fairest way to sell the pieces, she felt, was by taking offers.  She was in no rush, but once the offers came in, she would select the best ones and sell the art to the highest bidder.  She told me the names of the other bidders when I asked.  None of them were well known Finlay fans, and the only two names I recognized were Lesser and Gerry.  

Finally, just before hanging up, I asked her the one question that had bothered me since I had heard about the sale.  Were these Finlay originals left over from Gerry’s sale?  I had been told by Gerry that he had sold all those that hadn’t been bought by U.S. fans to Ron Turner, a rich art fan from Australia.  Not having seen her list, I was curious what Lail had for sale.

What she told me started my head spinning.  Her father had pulled aside a bunch of originals that were used in Don Grant’s biography and bibliography of Finlay’s career.  The art, which had been reproduced in the front section of the book, were those pieces that Finlay considered among his very best.  They had never ever been offered for sale, but then Lail had never expanded her business before.

When Lail’s list arrived a few days later, it confirmed exactly what she had told me on the phone.  There were ten black-and-white pieces, most of them from the first Donald Grant book on Virgil Finlay published in 1970.  There was one painting, the original done for Creep, Shadow that had been used for the cover of Famous Fantastic Mysteries  for August 1942.

With the list, Lail had sent copies of the originals.  This was a great help especially for those pieces that were not in the Grant book.  One thing I noticed right away.  The Xeroxes looked nicer than the originals in the book.  The explanation was simple and yet astonishing.  The Grant Finlay book had been published in 1970.  The Xeroxes were from 1990.  In twenty years, printing had advanced so much that copies now looked better than printed pages then.

I bid approximately $1,000 each on the originals that Lail put up for auction.  I didn’t make an offer on the painting, knowing that Bob Lesser had more money than me and was willing to spend whatever it took to buy pulp art.

I won all the Finlay black and whites.  Lesser got the painting for $8,000, the minimum that Lail would take for the piece.  I was quite pleased with my purchase.  Finlay had begun his career working as an artist for Weird Tales magazine in the 1930’s.  His work proved to be so popular that fans wrote in suggesting that the magazine publish a Finlay art page every issue.  Nobody seemed exactly sure how that page would work, but everyone liked the idea of a full page Finlay illustration.

Farnsworth Wright knew exactly how to please his readers and get the most out of Finlay.  He had the artist illustrate a snippet of verse from a famous poem or play.  Shakespeare was popular, as was Milton, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Each month Finlay drew a spectacular illustration based on four to six lines of verse.  The readers were happy;  Finlay, who was paid extra for his art, was happy; and with happy readers and artist, the editor was happy as well. Many years later, I was extremely happy as I had the opportunity to buy a number of these poetry pages from Lail Finlay for my collection.

Unfortunately, my good nature cut my score on poetry pages to one out of three.  My partner in the art business, Victor D., hadn’t been told about the Finlay auction and thus hadn’t bid on anything.  Needless to say, I had bought his all-time favorite illustration, the poetry page that illustrated the famous Old Cornish Litany, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night—good Lord deliver us.”  Finlay had drawn a group of first-rate monsters for what had to be one of his very best Weird Tales illustrations.  And my partner really wanted it.

So, I let him have it, for exactly what it cost me.  I wanted to be fair with everyone.  And I was.

Of course, I didn’t expect another one of my friends to desperately want a poetry page by Finlay.  But one did.  My friend, Stefan Dziemianowicz,  was a fanatical Weird Tales fan.  We had met several years earlier when he had proposed a best of Weird Tales anthology to a bargain book publisher.  We had grown pretty tight during the past few months.  When he heard about my success in the Finlay auction, he confessed that he had always dreamed of owning a Finlay poetry page. Having just let Victor have a poetry page, I felt obligated to let Stefan have one as well.  His choice was the one that illustrated several lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

After letting Stefan have the Poetry Page for The Ancient Mariner, I decided that I wouldn’t mention getting the Finlay art to anyone else.  I still had an incredible treasure trove of illustrations, and I was determined to keep the rest in my possession.  They have remained there, for twenty years, hanging up on the main wall of our second floor hallway, a spot in my home that I like to call “the Finlay wall.”  It’s covered with 35 originals, all by Finlay, and all among his very best.  I’m pleased as punch to own that wall, and every day I spend some time staring at the art.  No matter how long I own the pieces on that wall, I never quite believe they’re all mine.

I’ve already listed two spectacular pieces I bought and lost from that first auction held by Lail Finlay.  Now, I’ll list some of the originals I managed to keep.  Chief among them was the Weird Tales Poetry Page for Milton’s poem, Kubla Khan, based on the following lines of verse:

A savage place!  As holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Another exceptional piece was Finlay’s full page illustration (at right) for “The People of the Pit,” a short story by A. Merritt that was reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries for January 1941.  Finlay and Merritt were an unbeatable team.  The artist illustrated many of the author’s best works when they were reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels.  Finlay’s cover paintings and black and white interiors for Merritt’s lost race novels were among the artist’s best work.  It was a match made in pulp collector’s heaven.  In all my years of collecting, I’ve always tried to find Finlay illos for Merritt stories, because I know that I’ll never be disappointed in the originals.

Another illustration for a Merritt story in that same batch of artwork was a small piece done for “Burn, Witch, Burn” (above).  Even though it was not a full page original, the art was so spectacular that I didn’t mind paying a high price for it.  Making up for its lack of size was the double-page spread I also bought that came from the Weird Tales serial, “Dreadful Sleep.”  

The final drawing I bought from the Grant book was Finlay’s art for Murray Leinster’s long novelette, “The Red Dust.”  The story told of Earth in the far future, where plants and insects have grown to enormous size, but humans have remained unchanged.  The lead illustration for the adventure showed a beautiful girl asleep in a field of gigantic mold spores.  It was a terrific piece and highly effective.  

I bought several other pieces of Finlay art from Lail Finlay in that first auction held by her, featuring some of her father’s finest illustrations.  My wife’s predictions proved true, as Bob Lesser concentrated only on buying a Finlay pulp magazines cover.  And the bids by the other collectors proved to be too low to tempt her.  Only my bids, realistic for the time, proved high enough to meet Lail’s expectations.  In the months that followed, I was the one bidder who continued to buy the Finlay originals her father had considered his best work.  

Next time, I’ll detail some more of the incredible illustrations I bought from Lail Finlay.  I’ll describe the biggest art trade I ever made.  And I’ll mention how I bought paintings from David Mattingly, Richard Hescox, and James Gurney.  The 1990’s were filled with art deals and I’ll try to cover all of them. 

—Next Time

Column #6

It’s Potpourri Time!  

Robert Weinberg is the author of 17 novels, 16 non-fiction books and around a hundred short stories. He's also edited over 150 anthologies. He owns one of the finest SF/Fantasy original art collections in the world. These days, Bob is busy promoting his new book, Hellfire: Plague of Dragons, done with artist Tom Wood, and serving as editor for Arkham House publishers.

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