"I don't know which one of you is crazier," the auctioneer scolded two bidders Saturday, during what amounted to a pregnant pause in the selling of a vintage machine shop lathe—one restored, pinstriped and used for years by the late artist/machinist/pinstriper Von Dutch.
The crowd of mostly middle-aged white men and a few women roared, grateful for the diversion, for it was crazy: they were crazy, we were crazy. Von Dutch, who died in 1992, was sometimes kinda crazy. Being chastised for dropping $21,275 on a huge, outdated piece of machinery only confirmed what we all suspected, making it easier to bear: prices were crazy too.
Thanks to us, for being obsessed with a guy—Von Dutch, born Kenneth Howard—who might have turned in his grave or else cackled with glee at the prospect of someone paying $1,725 for a body hammer he'd etched with his name: at the notion that a self-styled man from Mars could become that famous.
But famous he is, partly for the web of outrageousness he began spinning as a sign painter's son in Depression-era southeast Los Angeles, partly for his mechanical genius—and especially for his talent at resurrecting the past. With a pinstriping brush.
"Pinstriping cars and motorcycles was a dead art when 15-year-old Kenny Howard went to work in George Beerup's motorcycle shop in the mid '40s," his longtime friend Bob Burns writes in The Art of Von Dutch, an outstanding new encyclopedic book on the man. "In the mid-'50s, customizers brought striping back in a new, radical form, believing they were doing something entirely new! Kenny Howard, the motorcycle mechanic, was the man who started this 'new' vogue." And the way he etched, welded, machined and striped vehicles and machinery elevated them to a new level—not unlike the way primitive cultures adapt modern implements.
"You take a Comanche Indian or Apache Indian, and they get themselves a rifle. They're left with the stigma that this is an item manufactured by a superior culture," the artist Robert Williams, a longtime friend of Von Dutch, told the Weeklyin 2003. "They get buckskin, tack it, shrink it, wrap it around the [gun] stock. That makes it their own, and that gives it an Indian soul. That's what Von Dutch did to machinery. He would take it and give it this personal touch."
It was this drive to personalize whatever he touched that pushed ZZ Top singer Billy Gibbons to pay nearly $2,000 for Dutch's body hammer—estimated to sell for no more than $300.
"The irony is that people think you can't be working on a car with a hammer—that's where you start," said Gibbons, a hot rod and custom car collector who, like nearly everyone else in the audience—real-estate moguls, gallery owners, car club members—had a deep appreciation for Dutch.
"The passion that he put into each and every one of these things," Gibbons said, "is just incredible."
The auction, named "The Originators," was the much-litigated liquidation of Jim Brucker's 30-year collection, which he began as a boy in Los Angeles—and which hit its stride June 4, 1970, when he opened the Movie World: Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame Museum in Buena Park. Brucker opened Movie World so he'd have a place to store his collection; renting it to the movies was his main business. But running a museum meant he could hire his boyhood heroes—and collect their work: first, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, as a set builder; then in 1974, Von Dutch, who simply drove up one day; then Williams, who would in 1994 found Juxtapoz, the so-called magazine of "lowbrow" art, which is what some people call their kind of creation.
Selling the works Brucker spent decades acquiring—original sketches for cartoon T-shirts from Roth Studios; seldom-seen Robert Williams paintings; Von Dutch's paintings and personal effects, plus assorted movie props, posters and toys—was a once-in-a-lifetime event. But it was also a referendum on what Von Dutch meant—and what his oeuvre is worth.
"It is the first ever Kustom Kulture auction to be held as far as anyone can really track, and what's very interesting is people are coming out of the woodwork," RM Auctions managing director Ian Kelleher said in April, name-checking the seminal 1993 Laguna Beach art show that was the first to spotlight Dutch, Roth and Williams together—and whose title came to exemplify artworks somehow sparked by the hot rod and custom car scene. "There's no [lowbrow art] specialist at Christie's." Nor should there be, some people say.
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"If you want my honest opinion about Von Dutch's art, it's shit," said automotive journalist Pat Ganahl, who sat mid-room at the auction. "What he was good at was pinstriping. That's what he excelled at, and doing his thing."
"Fine art? It's more like primitive art," said photographer Richard Karl Koch, who shot Von Dutch for a 1970 Los Angeles Times Westmagazine feature and had him pinstripe a Rand McNally globe of the moon—which Koch recently listed on eBay with a $75,000 reserve. "And some primitive art is worth more than fine art." It all depends.
"To me it's always been so difficult to put a value on it," said pinstriper Von Franco, upon whom Von Dutch was a key influence. "To me it should be about the artist, their opinion and what they put into it."
But as he and the horde of bidders discovered, whether it's a screwdriver, an oil painting or a louver press, something is worth what someone will pay. Which, it seems, Von Dutch knew all along. A sign he painted for Movie World read "Cash Talks/Bullshit Walks." It sold for $8,050.