Antiques and Art Around Florida — 2014-2015 Season
Change Language:
Florida Highwaymen Market: 20 Years Of Stories
Bob LeBlanc

There are places I’ll remember All my life, though some have changed Some forever, not for better. Some have gone and some remain. All these places have their moments.

Lennon and McCartney, from “In My Life” (Rubber Soul)

I was privileged to meet Mary Ann Carroll way back in the early days of the highwaymen art market, soon after Jim Fitch wrote his article in Antiques & Art Around Florida naming the group in 1995 and giving birth to the phenomenon.

Back in those days, until I actually met her, we used to think she was Mary Alice Carroll, her paintings signed with the initials M A Carroll.

She was invited to the show in West Palm and introduced to me by Dave and Sue Folds, two people who had seized upon the idea of a highly collectible market. Dave’s dad, along with Dave, began acquiring highwaymen paintings in thrift shops, carrying an actual working inventory of these things in their loft in a modest condo. The Folds were extremely important in helping to create a buying and selling atmosphere at the West Palm Beach state fairgrounds monthly show, which at the time was promoted by Jeff Francis and known as “The Piccadilly Show”. Some old timers still call it by that name as the tradition has carried on in that location.

These were the early days when it was difficult to convince a potential customer that a 24x36 painting, signed A, Hair could be worth the $35.00 to $50.00 that we would ask, and would likely increase in value over the long term.

I didn’t get involved with highwaymen art until I saw a Harold Newton landscape bought by John Phillips in a Arthur James Auction in 1994 and then read Jim Fitch’s article naming the group “the highwaymen” in AARF in 1995, so I never had the opportunity to meet Harold Newton (1934-1994)...

But, for the last twenty years, I’ve been meeting people who knew and dealt with Harold Newton, speaking with them at the shows I attend around Florida, or talking with them via phone or exchanging emails. These people number in the hundreds, probably more, a never ending procession, it seems.

Usually their story is the same. “Oh, I worked in a bank in the 60’s or 70’s and he’d come in and put his paintings around against the walls and we’d buy one or two for $20 or $25.”

Or they worked in a lawyer’s office, a doctor’s office, a furniture store and he’d come around, haul his paintings out of his van or the trunk of his car and spread them out. People would buy them or he’d trade them for services, groceries, dental work, whatever he could get away with. He would show up anywhere, from Jacksonville to Miami, from Vero Beach to Sarasota.

Obviously he was successful in doing this, as it has been speculated that he created and sold or traded 40,000 to 50,000 paintings in the four decades of his career, mid-1950’s to mid-1990’s.

Gray Brewer was the first real hoarder of highwaymen paintings. Back in the growing years of the market, maybe 1997, John Phillips, who was a driving force in the market, buying and selling highwaymen at that time, went to meet him in Vero Beach or Ft. Pierce on US 1. He got a stack of slides that day from Brewer and we later looked at them together to pick out the best ones. There were over a hundred paintings and most were Harold’s work. Some of the best were all spotty from mildew, stored in a barn or a warehouse up there subject to humidity.

After carefully reviewing them, and much discussion, John drove back up and convinced him, overwhelmed him, actually, by offering $500.00 a piece to let him pick out and buy ten paintings. Brewer didn’t really want to sell any of them, but John persuaded him to let go of ten, because five grand in cash was WAY too much at the time. One could find and buy Harold’s paintings for $50.00 to $150.00 almost everywhere back then.

As usual, Phillips got the best of the deal and came away with 5 or 6 magnificent “jumbos” (larger than the 24x48 standard size) and some serious beauties to finish off the 10 picks. I bought two of the smaller ones from John, but couldn’t get jumbos to fit in my Buick Regal, so I stayed away from them. These paintings were special then and they are still special now. Also in this lot was a 24x36 stretched canvas blue and orange seascape in a rope frame that was simply unbelievable. It currently resides in Captiva in a great collection.

Sam Vickers, industrialist and savvy Florida art collector in Jacksonville, purchased a pair of the Harold jumbos, a seascape and a back country, first shot, out of that group of 10. John became friends with Sam and his wife, Robbie, through that 1st transaction. I had planned to accompany John up to Jacksonville on that first trip, but something came up and I couldn’t go. I regret to this day missing that visit and the opportunity to view in person the Vickers’ magnificent collection. I certainly heard about their house on the St. Johns River and the collection, though, in detail and at length from John. The Vickers book, Celebrating Florida, by Gary Libby, was already out, so I only got to see the art that way.

I also knew, because of that sale to Vickers, that the highwaymen market had amazing potential, that Harold’s work was solid, desirable, investment quality art, because Sam has exquisite taste in art.

John and I, along with Jim Fitch and a few other dealers, grabbed the market by its collar and dragged it along, displaying at antique show after antique show for years, then finally the market defining book was published about the highwaymen in 2001 by University Press of Florida. A lot of time, energy and money was spent by a few entrepreneurs talking, showing and promoting highwaymen paintings, soliciting sales or purchases. I carried a cork board with clippings of AARF and newspaper articles attached to help prove the existence of the market to the public.

The Vickers-Phillips friendship opened the gates for the easy sale of the Orange Grove painting by A.E. Backus, now pictured on the dust jacket of Gentle Breezes, a book on Backus by Glenn and Sherry Firestone. Phillips had bought it and another Backus, a backcountry scene with a dirt road and pines, from a Delray Beach Dentist. Sam already had a Backus, as plated in Gary Libby’s, Celebrating Florida, but appreciated the orange grove, so he purchased it. He also called his brother, who bought the backcountry scene. I remember thinking it was the more eye appealing picture of the two, not appreciating the importance and rarity of documenting an orange grove at that time.

Some of those other Harold jumbos from the Brewer hoard, many years later, found their way into Jonathan Otto’s collection plated in the excellent book by Catherine Enns, The Journey of the Highwaymen.

Some of the stories, but not many, deviated from the norm.

One guy I spoke with several years back, who was in California, piloted a small plane and told me that he would fly Harold to the islands with Backus in the 1960’s. That surprised me, as I knew Backus allowed Hair to come along on these trips, but I didn’t know that Harold would accompany them. I found the old guy to be credible. After all, he showed me, via email, two classic 1960’s four footers on upson board that were both knock-outs, the only two he kept for himself for four decades. He also told me Harold gave him paintings on consignment to sell for him, as the pilot’s other job was as a travelling furniture salesman who would visit stores around the state on a regular basis and show the art along with tables and chairs. He claimed sales were good back then.

I originally talked to a woman at the fairgrounds show in West Palm Beach one year and she told a truly amusing tale. She reappeared at another show and repeated the story. This was not unusual, as I know that I’ve listened to the same people telling me their same story again and again, show after show. When she popped up, this time in Melbourne, I was ready for her and I flat-out grilled her for details. Luckily her husband was with her and she called him over to my booth to fill in a few facts. I put my reporter’s cap on and took notes.

Harold bought a used 1969 white four door Ford from the Bev Smith automobile dealership in West Palm Beach. I imagine he put down a stack of cash, but I know he financed the balance.

The woman I spoke with is Jeanne Harris and she introduced me to her husband Charles Harris, who is known as “Bill”. Bill, who worked for the finance company, Commercial Credit in West Palm, told me that Harold made his payments on a regular basis for about the first six or eight months, then stopped. They didn’t see him around, so the deal graduated to a repossession situation. Somehow they tracked him down and eventually spotted him and his vehicle across the state in St. Petersburg, of all places.

The car was a little beat up and scratched and the Repo man secured it for the finance company, but here’s the good part.

Harold had painted his car with typical hot rod flames emerging from the engine area, but also with “Rio Mar” beach scenes on both sides as well as the hood and the trunk. He did the same in the interior, embellishing the dashboard.

Now here’s the best part. On these painted beaches, running about in the sand, all around the car and on the dashboard he added a bunch of nude voluptuous young women.

It may have been his vision of heaven.

Jeanne and Bill are credible witnesses and knew Harold as personable and friendly. They would have no reason to fabricate the story, and they told me he had sold them a jumbo beach scene for five dollars. Sure sounds like a friendly price for the size. 75% off, just like a jewelry store.

There was an exceptionally beautiful sky one recent morning as the sun was about to come up. Looking east, there was a gorgeous blush of yellow gold on the horizon behind the silhouette of trees, gradually working its way up to light blue, then the deeper blue of night becoming daytime. A few dark gray clouds drifted across the gold and graduated up to white puffy ones as they met the blue. And as a bonus, a crescent moon hung up there in the deeper blue. I like a daytime moon when you can see the full roundness, the darker part as well as the brilliant white reflection of light.

Ah, but, as always in life, the color didn’t last very long.

Of all the thousands of highwaymen paintings I’ve seen in the last twenty years, only George Buckner seemed to be able to capture that particular luminescent “look” in some of his later works.

I’m not sure even Backus could capture it the way George did. I think the skies down here are, in general, spectacular. When people comment on the highwaymen paintings I display at shows, most of the time they’ll say how nice they are, how the artists have captured the moment. But sometimes, a self-proclaimed expert will still say to their friend, attempting to impress her or him, “That’s awful, I don’t like any of these highwaymen paintings, never did. The sunset doesn’t look like that.”

They couldn’t be more wrong. They are just not aware.

As I drive east on the way to a show in the early morning hours, or returning towards the west as the sun goes down, I have seen every color in the spectrum paint the sky, including green. When my son, Brian, was with me, he’d often say, “There’s a McLendon sunset over there” and there it would be, orange and yellow with a touch of sky blue pink behind the dark silhouette of a pine tree.

All that was missing was the crown molding frame.

For four decades, Bob LeBlanc has been a full time professional trader in collectibles. His expertise in evaluation has been used by museums, attorneys, auction houses, dealers and collectors for close to a full decade.

The author of several published articles on Harold Newton’s work, Bob also maintains several blogs and Facebook pages featuring highwaymen art, news and educational links. Since 1996, he has been a permanent dealer of highwaymen and other fine art at the West Palm Beach Antique Festival, where he offers free highwaymen art appraisals. pro_top!/pages/H-Newton-and-AHair-Paintings/309497962412013