Treasures In Your Attic: Bigger is Usually Better with Vanguard Abstract Works

Is this piece of abstract art one of a kind?

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I rescued a painting from a storage unit I purchased. I am not a collector and would like to sell it. It is signed “Lee Burr” and has a label on the reverse reading, “Vanguard Studios Inc.” What is its value?

Thank you,

B.S., Waterloo, S.C.

Dear B.S.:

Lee Raymond Burr (not the actor known for portraying Perry Mason on television) was born in Los Angeles. He and his brother Stuart started Vanguard Studios in Beverly Hills because they felt the average American family should have an opportunity to own a “real” oil painting on canvas.

Pursuant to this goal, the duo hired freelance artists to work on a day-to-day basis depicting a variety of subjects. Lee Raymond Burr began painting original art on canvas, which was then replicated by a crew of copycats.

Burr often traveled to Europe to purchase paintings at auction, bring them home and have his crew of eight to 10 artists create “original reproductions.” As the business grew, Burr hired American artist Harry Wysocki as chief designer and Argentine artist Aldo Luongo as part of his staff.

Burr used a number of different names on the canvases his workshop produced, including Lee Burr, Lee Reynolds and Lee Raymond Burr. The studio also went by slightly different designations, including Vanguard. Sometimes it was called Stuart Studios in homage to Burr’s brother.

Whatever the name on the front of the canvas, Burr did not paint the individual pieces himself. As the sort of frontman, Burr allowed his “students” (i.e. employees, copyists) to use his name (or a variant) on the works they produced. The subjects most often depicted were cowboys or Native Americans on horseback, landscapes, flowers, romantic scenes of Europe and America, and abstract images such as the one in today’s question.

To eliminate variations and inconsistencies, Burr created an assembly line system for painting production. Each canvas was hand-painted with a two-color ground. Black lines for the master design would be silk-screened onto the canvases, and then an artist on the production line would add hand-painting to fill in the outlined spaces as indicated in the master design (it was a bit like a child’s coloring book).

Numbers written on the back of the canvases referred to the painting master, while the initials were those of the studio artist. Interestingly, all the master paintings seem to have been destroyed. The Vanguard pictures were sold through the Vanguard showrooms, often to furniture stores and interior decorators.

Burr sold his interest in Vanguard in 1974, but the company continued in business until the 1990s. Vanguard canvases ranged in size from 50 square inches to 10 by 12 inches. Since we do not know the size of the canvas, all we can say is Vanguard abstract works sell between $200 and $1,800 depending on size, condition, and their aesthetic/decorative quality. Bigger is usually better.

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