Dogs Playing Poker Series Original Painting Fetches $658,000 at Auction

From the lighter side of the poker-news beat this Sunday comes the tail… err, tale… of the recent auction of one of the nine original “Dogs Playing Poker” series of oil paintings done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, an ertswhile inventor and painter who achieved lasting fame from his decades’ worth of depicting dogs acting out the roles of humans in various Victorian and post-Victorian scenes.  One of Coolidge’s paintings, “Poker Game,” brought $658,000 in a Sotheby’s art auction held last week.

coolidge-poker-gameCoolidge’s works could never be considered high art, but they’ve been a part of the pop-culture scene for a century, being iconic in their own right.  The “Poker Game” painting (right) isn’t the most famous of the nine known “Dogs Playing Poker” group crafted by Coolidge; that’s instead likely “A Friend in Need” (depicted below).  They aren’t really a formal group on their own, but were instead part of a larger collection of 16 of Coolidge’s paintings of dogs that he allowed to be used for a set of calendars first produced in 1903 by Brown and Bigelow for promotional purposes. Brown and Bigelow later became known for a separate series of Boy Scouts calendars that often featured the artwork of Norman Rockwell.

Wrote Sotheby’s, in marketing the painting for its auction:

It was after a trip to Europe in 1873 that he turned up in Rochester, New York, as the portraitist of dogs whose life-style mirrored the successful middle-class humans of his time. Coolidge’s first customers were cigar companies, who printed copies of his paintings for giveaways. His fortunes rose when he signed a contract with the printers Brown & Bigelow, who turned out hundreds of thousands of copies of his dog-genre subjects as advertising posters, calendars, and prints.

“Coolidge’s poker-faced style is still engaging today. His dogs fit with amazing ease into such human male phenomena as the all-night card game, the commuter train, and the ball park. His details of expression, clothing, and furniture are precise. Uncannily, the earnest animals resemble people we all know, causing distinctions of race, breed, and color to vanish and evoking the sentiment on an old Maryland gravestone: MAJOR Born a Dog Died a Gentleman” (“A Man’s Life,” American Heritage, February 1973, p. 56).

The fact that the garish but iconic work of Coolidge could fetch such a princely sum was guaranteed to cause the requisite art-snob crowd to complain, as noted in a piece that predicted some “existential panic” might occur.  Okay, Coolidge wasn’t Van Gogh, we get it.  Yet paintings sometimes achieve value for reasons other than their inherent quality, and so it is with Coolidge’s dogs.

Matter of fact, it wasn’t even the first time that his “Dogs Playing Poker” works brought such lofty sums.  Back in 2005, two other Coolidge pieces, “A Bold Bluff” and “Waterloo: Two,” sold together as a set for $590,000.  The two paintings depict the before-and-after states of a big poker hand and have, since their creation, been a natural art pair.

coolidge-a-friend-in-needThe $658,000 for “Poker Game,” which may well have been Coolidge’s first dogs-playing-poker work, is likely the current record for a Coolidge work.  But if “A Friend in Need” (right) ever went up for sale, this writer predicts it’d fetch over a million.  That’s the most iconic of Coolidge’s paintings, even if admittedly looks better in low-res ultraviolet inks, smeared across a swath of cheap velvet.

If you want to read a great history of Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings, there’s none better than the piece Martin Harris, a/k/a “Short Stacked Shamus,” did at PokerNews back in 2008.  I was the editor there back then, and I created that poker-themed takeoff on Andy Warhol’s iconic “Four Marilyns” work, the better to illustrate the underlying theme.

Beauty, as with value, is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes the things that end up having the most value to humans violate those existential artistic ideals.  Warhol’s original “Four Marilyns” piece sold for over $38 million at auction a couple of years back, and it’s not even the most expensive Warhol work.  $38 million would buy an awful lot of soup cans actually filled with soup, after all.

Such examples abound.  Just a couple of weeks ago, a guitar once stolen from the late John Lennon brought $2.41 million at auction.  You could have had Princess Leia‘s gold bikini from “The Empire Strikes Back,” had you been there and gone just a little higher than the $96,000 winning bid.  And here’s one to wonder on: Earlier this year, the 16-page manuscript of the lyrics as written by Don McLean for his hit “American Pie” sold for $1.2 million.  Great song, but really?

Thousands and thousands of such pop-culture collectibles have brought similarly high prices in recent years.  The prices for the Coolidge “Dogs Playing Poker” originals really aren’t extraordinary given all of that.  So let’s raise the woof a bit for some iconic, admittedly cheesy poker art, which somehow still fits in with all the rest.


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