Cuba’s annual citywide yard sale doesn’t officially begin until Saturday, but that didn’t stop one area resident from making the purchase of a lifetime earlier this week. The Cuba resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, purchased an original C.M. Coolidge painting valued at up to $500,000 for just $5.
The painting was sold at a yard sale that is going on all week at a rural Cuba address. The person who sold the painting, who also didn’t want to be identified out of embarrassment, admitted they didn’t know what the artwork was actually worth.
For those who are unfamiliar with Coolidge, painter Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (a.k.a. C.M. Coolidge) has earned the dubious distinction of being called "the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of." But while critics might sniff at his contribution to the art world, the history of his greatest works, known as “Dogs Playing Poker” is rich.
Coolidge's earliest explorations of dog paintings were made for cigar boxes. Then, in 1903, the 59-year-old artist started working for the “remembrance advertising” company Brown & Bigelow. From there, he began churning out works like “A Bold Bluff,” “Poker Sympathy,” and “Pinched With Four Aces,” which were reproduced as posters, calendars, and prints, sometimes as parts of promotional giveaways.
The painting that was recently purchased for $5 is the most popular of these Coolidge’s paintings and is of dogs cheating at poker. “A Friend in Need” pits a pair of bulldogs against five huge hounds. Who could blame them for slipping helpful cards under the table with their toes? As the most beloved of this series, “A Friend In Need” is also the one most often misnamed "Dogs Playing Poker."
These paintings gave Coolidge some fame in his 60s. He already had a quirky artistic claim to fame—he’s credited as the father of Comic Foregrounds, those carnival attractions where tourists can stick their heads atop a cartoon figure as a photo op. But with “Dogs Playing Poker” catching on through calendar and poster sales, Coolidge was able to sell some of the original paintings for $2,000 to $10,000.
Commissioned for commercial use, these paintings are regarded most often as kitsch, art that is basically bad to the bone. Recounting the highbrow opinion of these pieces, Martin Harris, of “Poker News” explained, "For some the paintings represent the epitome of kitsch or lowbrow culture, a poor-taste parody of 'genuine' art."
In the 1970s, kitsch was king, and demand for “Dogs Playing Poker” hit its peak—which made the pooches readily available in various affordable forms. Or, as art critic Annette Ferrara put it, "These signature works, for better or worse, are indelibly burned into the subconscious slide library of even the most un-art historically inclined person through their incessant reproduction on all manner of pop ephemera: calendars, T-shirts, coffee mugs, the occasional advertisement."
Coolidge went by the nickname "Cash" and has been described as a hustler whose résumé showed quite a few career changes. Before he was painting for calendars, he worked painting street signs and houses and also tried his hand at being a druggist, an art teacher, and cartoonist. He also started his own bank and his own newspaper. So perhaps the pooches who are always looking for the angles represented Coolidge’s own ambitions.
A 1998 auction saw a Coolidge original sell for $74,000 at Sotheby's. Then in 2005, “A Bold Bluff” and “Waterloo: Two” were put up for auction in Doyle New York’s Dogs in Art Auction. Before they hit the block, predictions were made that the pair of rare paintings would fetch $30,000 to $50,000. But an anonymous bidder ultimately paid a whopping $590,400 for them, setting a record for the sale of Coolidge works.
Auction notes from the Doyle event explain, "The (paintings') sequential narrative follows the same “players” in the course of a hand of poker. In the first (A Bold Bluff), our main character, the St. Bernard, holds a weak hand as the rest of the crew maintains their best poker faces. In the following scene (Waterloo: Two), we see the St. Bernard raking in the large pot, much to the very obvious dismay of his fellow players."
Coolidge painted 16 pieces within this collection, but only nine of them actually show dogs playing poker. “Higher Education” displayed helmeted pups playing football. “New Year's Eve in Dogsville” imagines a romantic soiree with dinner and dancing dogs. And “Breach of Promise Suit” showed a canine court.
Many critics have dismissed Coolidge's works as trivial because of their commercial origins. But in the 2004 book “Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America,” Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger proposed that Dogs Playing Poker was a satirical series intended to mock the upper class in their excesses and attitudes. Basically, Coolidge's critics might not be in on the true joke here, which is that it’s April 1—APRIL FOOLS!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Information for this April Fools prank came from the website mentalfloss.com.