Guest Commentary

Buying DeGrazia on eBay: a tribute

Ted DeGrazia died in 1982, 12 years before eBay was even a point-click-buy dream.

Too bad. Arizona's best-known and best-loved artist would have had a hoot over the frenzy his work is causing on the world's largest online auction network, where daily selections of DeGrazia paintings, prints, ceramics and memorabilia routinely number 100-250, far more than such masters as Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo, sometimes more than Picasso.

DeGrazia was a paradox. While his serious paintings of Southwest Indians and Mexican life command thousands of dollars and hang in major museums, he also created tons of arty knickknacks--dolls, ceramic figures, ash trays, wind chimes, Christmas-tree ornaments, greeting cards, collector plates, fabrics, needlepoint designs, necklaces and bolo ties, you name it--all bearing the trademark DeGrazia symbol of cute, button-eye, flower-decked Indian and Mexico children.

Most of the latter were produced through licensing arrangements with art guilds and private firms here and abroad. The artist acknowledged at one point that refrigerator magnets alone were bringing in more than $100,000 a year.

DeGrazia liked reaching the masses, and reach them he does through eBay. I began looking out of curiosity. I knew DeGrazia personally and have long collected his work. I bought a couple of hand-signed prints and some other items that seemed like a good deal, particular early work that I wasn't familiar with. I like the colors and the mood. DeGrazia was an amazing colorist, but I still like best the early flat pastels he applied with a pallet knife.

Oddly, I have very few hand-signed DeGrazia prints. At one time, I felt I was above collecting prints instead of original oils or watercolors. Also, you don't pal around with somebody like DeGrazia for very long if you're constantly bugging him to sign something. Today's escalating prices add a new twist. I can do prints.

Buying anything on eBay, particularly artwork, can be tricky if you're not familiar with the company's policy and terminology. One can only marvel at the descriptions sellers come up with to market their goods. "An original print," for instance. There's no such thing. Being a print makes it not original. "A signed print." DeGrazia signed everything on the original. For a reproduction to have value, it must also be hand-signed, or double-signed. Numbered lithographs. DeGrazia may have experimented with lithographs, but he rarely did them, and they weren't numbered. Frequently, framed greeting cards are offered as prints. I hope they're nice frames because, as such, the cards are virtually worthless.

Occasionally, an original oil will show up listed to start for an amazing 99 cents. But then you'll see the "reserve not met" notation, which means the seller isn't going to part with this baby for anywhere near 99 cents.

I bought something called a "midnight sketch" not long ago. They were DeGrazia's defense again insomnia; he did hundreds of those, with little handwritten captions on the bottom. I bought it, chancing that the seller had no idea of its value. My mistake. When it came, I removed it from its frame. It was a DeGrazia print from a bank calendar. It even had the days and months on the back.

Just because an artist's name is DeGrazia, it's not necessarily the Ted DeGrazia. One recent "DeGrazia" offering depicted Venice gondolas done in a kind of mock Renaissance style. DeGrazia was Italian, but he never painted gondolas, and he didn't do Renaissance.

DeGrazia and his son Nick were often at odds, but nothing caused a wider gap in their relationship than when Nick, who worked as a boxer and a wrangler, decided to take up painting. He copied his father's work in the simplest of styles, mimicked the colors and of course the very familiar and famous "DeGrazia" signature which, one assumes, he was fully entitled to use. Nick died some years ago, but his work--donkeys and Indian maidens--still pops up in eBay's DeGrazia section, often without mentioning his first name.

I also see red flags with this familiar description on eBay: "New DeGrazia design." DeGrazia died 23 years ago. I doubt he's turning out many new designs. Another favorite eBay sales pitch: "Purchased from my grandmother's estate sale and still in its original frame. I don't know what it's worth, but I understand DeGrazia was pretty good."

That he was.