Singer-Fleischaker Oil Company
Armand Hammer was a good acquaintance of mine. He said, “Every great happening begins with a benevolent gesture.” I made it one of my rules. This Joe Singer story is about that philosophy.
I always wanted to advertise full page color. The Santa Fe opera bulletin was small so they allowed me only a 1/4th page ad. The painting I gave them was an Oscar Berninghaus night scene of a horse tied to a hitching post. It was snowing and the lights in the cantina across the street were inviting. You could almost see music coming from the windows. The painting was untitled, so I called it Forgotten.
I’m guessing about this next part but I think it’s a pretty good guess. Joe and Richard, and their wives, were at the opera. Ann and Addie were full of the music and scenery, but the men were seriously bored. While thumbing through the bulletin, wishing the opera would hurry up, the men came upon my ad. It was a melancholy scene and it struck a chord with them. They wanted to look at it.
The next day, they came in Fenn Galleries Ltd, and I met them at the door. It was love at first handshake. We drank coffee (I always put cream and sugar in mine to help kill the taste) and laughed a lot. We just really got along.
The women headed for the vault where the Indian jewelry was housed. And there was plenty of it on display. Squash blossom necklaces were hanging from every square inch of the ceiling, turquoise bracelets, rings, and ear drops were everywhere. There must have been 1000 pieces if you counted them slowly. The girls (you can call a female a girl until she 16 and after she’s 70, but not in-between) wore big grins. They didn’t have any Indian jewelry but suddenly they wanted some. The romance of Santa Fe was homing in on them.
I gave my secretary a wink, and she knew what that meant. As the girls darted from one display to another, I unlocked all of the glass cases. It was fun to watch their enthusiasm. Soon, my secretary appeared, right on cue. “Mister Fenn, you’re wanted on the phone. It’s an important call and I think you should take it.”
As I was walking out, I said, “OK girls, I’ve got so much of this stuff, pick out what you want and it’ll be a gift from me to start you on your Indian Jewelry collection. I’ll be back in a minute.”
After about 10 minutes I returned to see what they had amassed. Ann was wearing a $6,500 #8 spider web turquoise chunk necklace, and Addie had on a bracelet-ring set that was worth about $4,800. I said, “Lordie, I should have known you’d pick my very best things.” The girls giggled.
Joe and Richard were the Singer/Fleischaker oil company in Oklahoma City. They were not art collectors especially, but when they saw what we offered, they started thinking about it.
That night we had dinner at The Pink. After about an hour of talking about everything, and eating some of Rosalie’s hot apple pie with rum sauce on the side, the girls got up and walked across the street to the Desert Inn, where they were staying. Joe and Richard lit up expensive Cuban cigars. The air got quiet and I just sat there, taking it in. I liked both of those guys.
Finally, Joe said, “Forrest, we’ve got a lot of money and everyone is trying to get it. We never had anyone treat us like you did today.” Suddenly I felt like we had a father/son relationship, but I don’t remember which was which.
The next day they came in our gallery and purchased about $265,000 worth of paintings, including Forgotten,
Armand Hammer was right.
But there were shadows on the horizon. Ann told me a story in private. Their son Paul was a medical doctor in the Army. Without telling his father, Paul volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. The news infuriated Joe. He argued, why in the world would you willingly put your brilliant future in harm’s way? The arguments were fierce and frequent.
The night before Paul was to leave for Southeast Asia, Joe and Ann threw their son and his wife, a huge black-tie dinner/dance bash at the country club. Hundreds of their friends and relatives were in attendance. Two hours into the event, and right in the middle of the dance floor, Joe and his Paul got into it again.
Paul stalked out of the dance, went to Vietnam, and was killed in action.
It weighed heavily on Joe, who blamed himself for what happened. He suffered long periods of severe depression.
Some months later Joe happened into our gallery unannounced. He was in Santa Fe to buy oil leases from the state.
I had recently traded four big Walter Ufer paintings from the Houston Art Museum. They were big, two were 30”x 40” and the others were 40”x 50.” They had been purchased with an endowment left to the museum by a wealthy philanthropist named Ima Hogg.
The paintings were hanging in our high room and the two of us were looking at them. “Joe,” I said, “these smaller paintings are perfect for your collection, but the 40 x 50s are too big for your house. Why don’t you buy all 4 of them and give the two large ones to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, in memory of your son.”
Joe didn’t say anything. I think he was stunned. Finally, he said something silly. “How do I know they want them.” I told Joe that Dean Krakel was the director. “I’ll go call him.”
The problem was that Krakel was an expert, and if you didn’t know it, he would surely find a way to tell you. I had had a couple of strained business deals with him in the past. I worried about it most of the night. He could blow the deal if he wanted to. It was no skin off of his nose either way. I almost felt subservient to the situation.
Then, in the wee morning hours it came to me. I predicted nearly every word that would be said. I had to bait Dean one time then close the deal if I could. I needed some luck.
The next afternoon we were standing in front of the paintings. Dean on the right and Joe on the left. I was relaxed in the middle.
Dean didn’t act like he was impressed, but I knew he was. “They’re very nice,” he said, and he walked over to the big painting on the right. The wall sticker said $275,000. “Wow” came out of his mouth. “Where’d you get the precedence for that price?”
“Dean, there’s no precedence for that price because there’s is no precedence for that painting.”
“Yes there is, we have “The Corn Thief,” it’s the same size, same artist, and a better painting. We gave $250,000 for it.”
“I know that Dean, and I’ll give you $300,000 for it right now. You’ve either got to buy mine or sell me yours.”
“There’s no way you’re gonna get mine.”
Joe Singer said, “Well then, I guess we bought some paintings.” I smiled inside and congratulated both Joe and Dean.
We hanged the paintings and remodeled one corner of the museum. Paul’s stethoscope and Purple Heart were proudly displayed in a glass case alongside his scrubs. I gave them some Indian rugs and other things to warm the place a little. It looked really nice and Joe was beaming.
Later, Ann told me, with a tear, that the veil of remorse had lifted from Joe’s body and he was his old self again.
A personal note.
They said I was eccentric, and they still do. Maybe it’s true. The art business was good to me because I gave so much away. It was certainly unorthodox. When you start out with no education, no experience, no inventory and no money, there are not many more nos that you don’t have. So you do what you have to do to make things work. My rewards came from every direction, and helping them along was just good business. f