The Business I Did Not Start
Back in the early 1980s, Peggy and I were taken to an open house at the Nutmeg Curling Club in Darien, Conn. We tried the sport and liked it.
Dues were cheap, and curling was a grand diversion over the winter—a sport to enjoy from ages 8 to 80. Fellow members were all party animals. Booze flowed and second-hand cigarette smoke was a fact of life.
I never got good at curling, but Peggy excelled. She traveled to bonspiels (friendly competitions in the northeast) and had a blast. After a few years, her team won the regionals and she went off to compete nationally.
Booths were set up at bonspiels and championship events to sell equipment—brooms, shoes, gloves and clothing.
Others offered stone tchotchkes made from the Ailsa Craig granite island off the coast of Scotland's Turnberry golf course. It is the only granite in the world suitable for curling stones.
Occasionally a marketer of curling art would exhibit—mostly reproductions of 19th century paintings, prints and etchings. Here were Scotsmen in kilts and tams curling on a frozen pond or canal. The modern prints, drawings and paintings were artistic crap.
Curling pins and patches were coin of the realm among curlers. Every club had a pin and every event was memorialized with a pin.
[See the first image in the media player at upper right for a sampling of Peggy's curling collectibles.]
My LeRoy Neiman idea
Back then, ABC's Wide World of Sports was hosted by Jim McKay. Every weekend viewers were offered the consummate coverage of world class competition—sailing, skiing, figure skating, the Triple Crown, track and field, gymnastics and, of course, the Olympics.
The premier sports artist of the time was LeRoy Neiman—a cigar-chomping macho man with a mustache that covered his face from ear to ear. ABC would hire Neiman to paint sports pictures on camera. His trademark was a series of vivid colors and impressionistic images that shimmered with energy and movement.
Posters of his work sold all over the world. Signed prints commanded over $1,000 each. Original paintings were out of sight.
On a whim, I decided to look into hiring Neiman to create a curling painting from which signed prints could be made.
I found LeRoy Neiman's address and wrote him a letter asking if he were interested at all in the sport of curling. If so, would he consider painting a curling match and having signed prints made up for sale.
To my astonishment, I received a cordial letter back (now lost, alas) from Neiman who said he loved the idea. He had grown up in St. Paul, Minn., lived near a curling club and saw a lot of it as a boy.
If I were interested in pursuing this, Neiman wrote, I should get in touch with Knoedler in New York. He gave me the name of the person to contact.
Knoedler—The Art World's Summit
Founded in 1846, Knoedler was New York's premier gallery. Over the years it had sold paintings by Vermeer, Raphael and Rembrandt to the world's greatest collectors: John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick. Institutional buyers included the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art and London's Tate Gallery.
For a junk mail copywriter in Stamford, Conn., talking to these people was heady stuff. The Knoedler rep was most cordial and sent me the details:
- Hire Neiman to paint an original curling scene: $25,000. Neiman could choose the venue and event. I had no input.
- Knoedler would then print a limited edition lithograph (or serigraph) that Neiman would sign.
- My cost: $325 for each of the signed limited edition of 300 prints.
- I owned them and could sell them for whatever price I could get.
- Knoedler would warehouse them send them out on a drop-ship basis.
- Total cost for the painting plus 300 signed lithographs: $122,500.
Minimum markup for a successful direct marketing promotion was 5x. Ideally it should be 9x or more.
With any hope of breakeven in my lifetime, I would have to charge $1,625 to $2,925 per print.
I asked some Nutmeg members if they were interested. One or two were enthusiastic. Most shrugged it off.
At the time, curling was a minor sport played mostly by folks in the lower economic sphere: farmers, blue-collar workers and bar flies. To attend a bonspiel, few ponied up cash for airfare. Rather they drove for hours, bunked into economy motels, four to a room and ate on the cheap.
For national competitions Peggy flew to such venues as Fargo, N.D. (potato country) or Bemidji, Minn. (the "iron range"), where the economies were in the tank.
For example, in Hibbing Minn., Peggy slipped on the ice and broke her ankle. Friends drove her to the hospital. It had no doctor. An administrator called around town and found a pediatrician who drove over. He read the X-ray and set the ankle.
The pediatrician's parting words: "When you get to Connecticut, see your doctor there, because basically I don't know what I'm doing."
In short, trying to sell high-end curling prints in this environment was preposterous.
Did Lists Exist?
Nah. The Curling News was published sporadically by a sweet older couple with (as I recall) 3,000 subscribers. Many issues were sent to curling clubs rather than individuals.
An ad in Curling News—although cheap—would pull bupkis.
Curling was (and is) huge in Canada, where 1 million avid curlers play in public and private ice facilities all over the country.
However, at the time, the Canadian Dollar was worth USD $0.60, which meant one of my LeRoy Neiman prints would be priced at $2,700 to $4,900 Canadian.
Curling was big in Europe—Scotland, Switzerland, Scandinavia, etc. But were lists available? Had any of them heard of LeRoy Neiman?
Having cut my teeth on direct marketing arithmetic, it was immediately obvious this dog would not hunt.
Peggy and I said the hell with it and bought a house instead.
Fast-Forward 30 Years
Curling has been an Olympic medal sport since 1998 and NBC has devoted hundreds of hours of coverage.
As a result, curling has taken off like a rocket. The United States Curling Association reports 165 member clubs in 40 states. Included are such unlikely new venues as Florida, Arkansas, Arizona, Southern California, Alabama, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In addition, the World Curling Federation boasts 63 member countries from Andorra, Armenia, Belarus and Bulgaria to Slovakia, Slovenia, Taiwan and Ukraine.
Every four years, the Olympics spur thousands of viewers to search out local curling clubs and give the sport a try.
These are upmarket folks with discretionary income in a sport growing like crazy—obvious customers for a LeRoy Neiman piece of art.
Would I Revisit the LeRoy Neiman Project Today?
In a heartbeat.
Alas, not LeRoy Neiman's heartbeat. Neiman assumed room temperature in 2012 at age 91.
Nor Knoedler's heartbeat. The great art emporium was caught selling forgeries for tens of millions of dollars and promptly shut its doors forever on Nov. 30, 2011.
In short, the market now exists. The lists exist.
But the artist does not.
Neiman signed lithographs are selling up to $14,000 today. Not a bad return on my $325.
But 30 years is a long time to wait.
I'm glad our money was tied up in nice places to live.
And I'm delighted Peggy and I have seen so much world. The alternative would have meant spending years in a state of perpetual worry handcuffed to a stack of prints gathering dust in a warehouse.
Takeaways to Consider
- Whatever business you want to start, know your arithmetic.
- Know your market.
- Do not be afraid to say no when the stars are not in alignment.
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