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NewCityNet Masterpiece Canvass

A real-life tour through the Parker Bros. art game

By Ann Wiens

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  I always wanted to be Bitsy. We all did, actually. Bitsy Rich Wong Dobrowski Keyes - the young, pretty, thrice-married (to a gardener, a pro linebacker and a piano tuner, respectively), free-spirited heiress, cashing in her blue-chip stocks to buy artistic masterpieces. Bitsy was the apple of my fourth-grade eye, the perfect persona to assume as my friends and I spent countless rainy afternoons risking untold millions among "a dazzling array of eccentric art speculators" on "an exciting, suspenseful trip into the elite world of the international art auction." Growing up in a small Oregon college town, worlds away from cultural capitals and unfamiliar with anything that could be remotely considered an artistic masterpiece, I, like so many of my generation, first experienced "fine art" via Parker Brothers' 1971 board game, Masterpiece.

The premise of the game is simple. Adopting the role of one of six "colorful characters," ranging from a presumed former Nazi who "once signed a multi-million dollar contract in disappearing ink" to a mean-tempered spinster librarian, each player moves around the game board attempting to amass the greatest fortune in cash and artworks. Aesthetics be damned! At the end of the day, the cash value of the twenty-four paintings - which range from a single, million-dollar masterpiece down to two worthless forgeries - is all that matters. The value of each of the twenty-four masterpieces-all of which are from the Art Institute of Chicago's collection - changes with every game. Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," that ubiquitous image of a sparsely populated, late-night corner diner, might fetch $750,000 one day, and be a fraudulent impostor the next. As much as we understood this, however, such crass commercialism had a hard time breaking down our pre-teen idealism. Just as whoever got stuck playing Millicent Friendly - the pinched, sour-looking librarian - was destined to spend the afternoon pouting, so was whoever acquired Peter Blume's painting "The Rock" - a cartoonish, apocalyptic image of progress and destruction that held great appeal for 10-year-olds, especially boys - hard-pressed to contain his or her glee, even if the painting turned out to be worthless.

Leah Stoddard, a curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, remembers that, among her pals in Bethesda, Maryland, the greatest disdain was reserved for Jackson Pollock's "Greyed Rainbow." "No one would ever bid on it," she recalls. "We all thought it looked like crushed tin foil."

It was standing in front of that very painting that I first realized the extent of Masterpiece's influence on my perception of fine art. I was strolling through the Art Institute on a May 1997 press tour celebrating the opening of the newly remodeled modern and late-modern galleries. As I wandered into gallery 239 with a colleague a generation older than I, she uttered a nostalgic sigh. "Seeing some of these paintings is like visiting old friends - I remember so many of them from coming here on field trips as a child. It's so good to see them again," she murmured. I smiled politely. I, too, was feeling a rush of nostalgia - but I was remembering the time I excitedly posted the winning bid for "Greyed Rainbow," only to discover it was a forgery. Turning toward the forceful, orange abstraction on the opposite wall, Hans Hoffman's "The Golden Wall," I became completely disoriented. I had always assumed it was vertical (the Masterpiece game cards give no clues as to orientation, although the Pollock and the Hoffman are the only abstract images of the lot). But there it hung, on its side.

I realized then that I would forever see those twenty-four paintings through the thick lens of popular culture. Anyone who has ever tried - and failed - to listen to Richard Wagner's "The Ride of the Walkčre" without unwillingly conjuring the image of Elmer Fudd belting out "I killed the wabbit, I killed the wabbit!" knows the feeling.

Art dealer Joel Leib, owner of Ten in One, has similar memories of the game even though he grew up in Chicago, in proximity to the actual paintings. "It was the first game you felt like an adult playing," he notes. "There was a lot of excitement when you got a painting you liked, or you knew someone else got a forgery. I won't go so far as to say Masterpiece is the reason I became an art dealer, but it was a great game."

Originally produced by Parker Brothers in 1971, Masterpiece was designed by Marvin Glass Associates, the Chicago firm responsible for many classic board games of the 1960s, including Operation, Lite-Brite and Mouse Trap. The firm's Chicago location seems a likely reason for using the Art Institute's collection to illustrate the game; however, neither Parker Brothers, the Art Institute nor the current incarnation of the firm, Meyer Glass Design, could recall how the deal was originally struck.

An Art Institute spokesman told me that Parker Brothers worked with the museum's imaging department to acquire reproduction rights for the original version of Masterpiece, but no records remain. An updated version, with new characters and many new paintings, was produced in 1997; licensing of the images was negotiated directly between Parker Brothers and the museum gift shop. The Art Institute declined to answer questions regarding how or by whom the images were selected, instead assuring me that there were no "dicey negotiations."

The difference in the paintings' possible values between the 1971 and the 1997 versions of the game is significant, although not altogether unrealistic when viewed in light of the actual art market. In the 1971 edition, prices range from $100,000 to $1 million with two forgeries. In the new version, $1 million is the lowest possible value (with the exception of the forgeries), and prices go up to $10 million.

The Art Institute refused to speculate on the value of the actual works, although for works of this caliber, speculation is the key word. Nicholas Maclean, head of Impressionism and nineteenth-century art for Christie's, explains the difficulty of assigning values to such works, many of which are truly "priceless." Extremely well known, they usually possess - in spades - all the qualities that affect prices realized at auction: "quality, rarity, condition and freshness to the market."

In my recent round of Masterpiece, I managed to acquire one of my old favorites, Vincent Van Gogh's "Self Portrait" of 1886/87 (currently on view in gallery 206 at the Art Institute). This small painting is an early one among at least two dozen self-portraits the artist painted during a two-year stay in Paris. In my game, the painting (which I bought at auction for $400,000) came up with an actual value of $700,000 - in the top tier of Masterpiece, and not bad in "real life" for the 1970s, according to Maclean.

Just last month, a late self-portrait by the artist, "Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe" of 1889, sold for the third-highest price ever achieved by an artwork at auction: $71,502,500. An indication of how the market for "priceless" artworks has escalated over the past several decades, the same painting, when it was last sold in 1961, is believed to have fetched only around $200,000. Another Van Gogh self portrait sold by Christie's in May 1990 brought $26,400,000.

While auction houses use sales figures for comparable works to determine estimated values for paintings, they are not always reliable. The $71 million Van Gogh, for example, carried an unpublished estimate of $20-25 million. "It's not like dealing with stocks and shares, where hundreds of people may influence the show price of a particular company," explains Maclean. "Often it can be two people who are moved by a particular painting and the 'must-have' factor takes effect."

Such is the case when Peter Blume's "The Rock" comes up for auction on my dining-room table. Although my taste in art - at least among the Masterpiece images - seems to have remained remarkably consistent over the past twenty-five years, this painting proves the exception. Staring at the real thing in the museum the next day, I'm almost embarrassed by its overwrought stylization, its hyper-extended symbolism, its complete lack of subtlety. Surrounded by the stars of Surrealism - works by Dali, Magritte, etc. - as well as Hopper's "Nighthawks," it seems a misfit, just as it always did in the game. It reminds me of generic seventies album-cover art. But nostalgia kicks in, and I feel compelled to bid on it. I get it for $300,000. Its secret value card reads... FORGERY. Figures. My source at Christie's provides a price for a Blume's "Cow In Pasture," auctioned there in 1986: a mere $24,200. The next morning, I scour the galleries of the Art Institute, Masterpiece cards in hand, in search of the paintings. I find most of them. Gallery 216 has the most, with four, including Rembrandt's portrait of his father, the signature image of the game (it appears in the center of the playing board). Gallery 201 is a close second, with much beloved images by Monet and Renoir, as well as Gustave Caillebotte's "Place de l'Europe on a Rainy Day." Winslow Homer's "The Herring Net" is tucked away amid the furniture in the downstairs American galleries. A few prove trickier to find, temporarily moved from their regular places. Bernardo Martorell's "St. George and the Dragon," the circa-1438 image that was the favorite of my curator friend's Bethesda crowd, is currently residing in the basement Kraft Education Center, part of an interactive educational exhibit for children.

Mary Cassatt's "The Bath (La toilette)" occupies the spotlight, though. Pulled from its usual spot and included in the museum's current blockbuster, "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman," the painting holds a true place of honor in modern terms.

Like many of her works, this painting depicts a tender, but not overly sentimental, moment between mother and child, as a woman in a striped robe gently washes a little girl's feet in a basin of water. It's a beautiful painting. And to be sure you don't forget it, a two-room gift shop greets you as you leave the exhibition, offering items for every lifestyle and in every price range emblazoned with the image: a puzzle for $4.95, a coffee mug for $8.95, kids' coloring kits for $9.95, a tote bag for $12.95 and a towel for $32, plus note cards, posters and calendars.

But what really catches my eye is a striped terry-cloth bathrobe, wrapped in cellophane and ready to take home for $98. A robe I recognize from the painting, a painting I recognize from the Masterpiece game: the lens of popular culture seems to be reflecting right back on itself.

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