Still, not everyone appreciates the success of galleries like Fingerhut.
"[Allan Fingerhut] is successful because he's selling to the uneducated," says Doug Flanders, owner of Flanders Contemporary Art, a downtown art gallery that has sold the work of many local artists for the past 27 years in the same Wyman Building where Allan Fingerhut once had an office in the 1980s. "To me, he's taking advantage of a lot of people's ignorance. People try to sell stuff later that they've bought from Fingerhut, and they can't. No one wants to buy it. It's not original art. There's no market for it... None of Fingerhut's artists will ever show in a place like the Walker or the Institute of Arts"--as many of Flanders's artists have.
Flanders's response no doubt reflects a streak of professional jealousy. Even established galleries such as his struggle to sell local talents to Twin Citians; more than 90 percent of his sales goes to people outside the state. Yet several art experts had similar responses to the work Fingerhut sells. The thrust of their complaints is that touched-up serigraphs are merely photomechanically reproduced products and not original works of art.
"In effect, these works are posters," says Siri Engberg, the curator of prints at the Walker Art Center. "Dealers who deal with originals take issue with a place like this, and understandably so... Such [photomechanical] reproductions would never show at the Walker. They have no value as artwork.
"It is a tricky area though," she adds. Engberg goes on to explain how numerous galleries often abuse terms like "limited edition" to mislead potential collectors. She reports that an edition size of even 100, let alone 500, is considered unusually large for print art, and that the larger edition size greatly diminishes the value of the work. And she is somewhat amazed at the prices Fingerhut typically commands for its prints. "People are probably paying mostly for the frame," she says.
In a sense, what is at issue here is whether the value of art should be determined by the basis of its originality--and its exclusivity. Since the days of Warhol's "factory," several artists have designed their careers to comment on this dynamic. Bratty New York prankster Mark Kostabi made his name in the Eighties by hiring a stable of subordinates to create "original" Kostabi works. And a more populist New York artist, Steve Keene, has challenged the idea of art as a limited commodity by painting thousands of small, original works each year that he then sells for $5-$25 each.
Prominent art critic David Hickey, who lives in Las Vegas and writes on bad taste in art and popular culture, concurs with Engberg to some degree on the valuation of mass-produced work. At the same time, he holds a more circumspect and democratic view of the overall art industry and the role of galleries such as Fingerhut within the market. "Art values come from the outside," Hickey says. "If you think it's valuable, it's valuable. The issue is what you want to look at. Bad taste is real taste. There's not much to say [about Fingerhut art] except it's different."
Still, Doug Flanders finds the naiveté of local art collectors astounding. "It's funny," he says. "These people spend more time shopping for cars, or even furniture, than they do shopping for art. They might go to ten or twelve stores before they decide on a dining set, but they won't do the same for art. They buy the first thing they see."
Flanders then tells a story of one couple who had bought art from Fingerhut to fill a new house and then called him to appraise their booty on the suggestion of a mutual friend. "I went to the house of this couple," says Flanders, "and I couldn't believe it. They'd paid a lot of money for some really ugly pieces. $8,000 for a print by this Jiang of a rainbow-colored zebra. A print! And this tiny drawing for $10,000...I had to tell them, 'Please do us a favor before you buy this and come to my gallery.' They did, and ended up buying an $8,000 original Picasso drawing from me, along with works by several other local artists I carry who show regularly at the Walker and other such national venues. I was tickled to death; this hardly ever happens... But then, wouldn't you rather have an original Picasso for your money?"
David Hickey, a former art dealer who now writes on art as well as teaches art theory and aesthetics, shrugs when I mention that these kinds of galleries are proliferating, and that the work of Peter Max and Leroy Neiman, as well as many other artists, now regularly sell on eBay. "Maybe this is a national trend. But I still believe there is absolute value in art. If you hang a Picasso in a room next to a Peter Max, eventually most people will tend to take the Peter Max down."
In fact, Hickey only takes exception to this kind of art when discussing the pricing of it. "It's not worth as much as the galleries charge for it," he says. "It has no auction prices to back it up, and no official accreditation. This becomes a problem if people want to resell the art."