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Inside The Multi-Million Dollar World Of Rock And Roll Art At SF Art Exchange

British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe poses ahead of the exhibition 'Tear down the Wall' in Halle, eastern Germany on September 20, 2009. Scarfe gained fame as the art director of the music album 'Te Wall' by British band Pink Floyd. The exhibition takes place from September 22 to November 15, 2009. AFP PHOTO DDP /JENS SCHLUETER GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read JENS SCHLUETER/AFP/Getty Images)GETTY

The SF Art Exchange, created by and run by Jim Hartley and Theron Kabrich, is currently showcasing a $25 million exhibit entitled "Art Of The Album Cover." For those who have followed the rising value of rock and roll memorabilia over the years it shouldn't come as a major shock that album work is now recognized as real artwork and is skyrocketing in value.

Earlier this year Hartley tells me they sold original artwork from Pink Floyd The Wall for $1.85 million. And a set of the Beatles Abbey Road photos is now being valued at over a million dollars as well.

I spoke with Hartley and Kabrich about how their gallery became the home for rock and roll art, the artists that will have the most value a century now and why museums that one turned their noses up at pop culture art are now fighting for these same works. Pop culture and rock and roll art are a big business now.

Steve Baltin: Tell me about the upcoming exhibit.

Jim Hartley: The exhibition that we're just finalizing has been going on September and October. It's a $25 million exhibition of the art of the album cover. So we had like a hundred pieces here. The headliners are like the originals for Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, we have the Abbey Road original set here. It's diverse, it's across the board for original album art. I've been working on it for more than a year, but I guess in a sense I've been working on it for 35 years to get to the point we can do it. It's the kind of show I can say proudly no one else can do and no one else can replicate it. It's just the result of what we've done here over the years. Relationships we've developed and it's a market, it sounds a bit over the top I suppose, but it's really a market that was born here.

Baltin: How so?

Hartley: My partner and I started our gallery back in 1983 and started off selling, believe it or not, Chagall, Picasso, Miro, modern masters. And I guess the one element that caused what happened here to happen here was that when we first started to get involved in some pop areas we saw it as an art form. Are you aware of the artist Alberto Vargas? He painted for Esquiremagazine, every month during World War II there would be a two-page foldout of one of his pinups there and they would paint them onto the bombers. A couple of years after we formed the gallery I happened to come to know the Vargas estate. Alberto had passed away and he had never sold his artwork before. So we ended up being the first gallery to show his life retrospective and continued from there being their dealers and agents over these many years. We've sold $30 million of his artwork over the years, paintings, drawings and prints. But most importantly it got us into pop, the art of pop culture. It put us on the map, we got world attention.

Baltin: How did that lead to music?

Hartley: A couple of years after that, 1987, a gentleman who was a tour manager for Ronnie Wood and the Stones, would come to town and see what was going on with Vargas and at some point he asked us if we'd be interested in handling Ronnie's artwork. He wanted to take time and do his art commercially, he had been an artist for years and gone to art school. So we became Ronnie's first continuing art dealer and distributor in 1987, December of '87 we did our first show. For several years it was all we could do to hold on because between Vargas and Wood sales it was really pretty amazing days. Then of course you do well for a Rolling Stone and it opened other doors. At the time there was no market.

You certainly wouldn't find artwork like this in any established gallery. Early on museums would be pretty snooty about it when we would talk to those we knew in that world. We'd talk to people about rock and roll and invariably the response would be, "Oh no, we wouldn't do that." Now it's very rewarding for us to see the kind of response that it gets these days. Even George Lucas now is spending a billion dollars on his museum for the popular narrative down in Los Angeles, that is not focused only on artwork. But certainly that's part of it.

Baltin: It makes sense, there are people who grew up with rock and roll as part of their lives that are now older and have money.

Hartley: All of that is entirely true. But beyond that is really quite interesting because our collectors are getting younger. It's fascinating for me to see. I have people in their 20s coming in here and they have an understanding that is surprising to me. It's historic. The music and the symbolism, the imagery associated with it has become historic.

Baltin: How has that manifested in the prices of works?

Hartley: This art has now hit some really substantial prices. Last summer I had come to know Gerald Scarfe, who did the original artwork for Pink Floyd The Wall and he was like 81 years old when he and I connected. I asked if he had any of his original artwork from then. He came back to me and said, "No, I've got it all. I never sold any." So we did our first-ever exhibition of that original artwork and we got amazing world press, a couple of thousand requests for the catalog. We ended up selling the original painting that was used for the movie poster for 1.85 million. The entire exhibit we sold over three million. January of this year we sold a complete set of Abbey Roadphotographs, an entire shoot, six photographs of them walking back and forth, three each direction. There are only five complete sets in the world and we all sold five from here. In January we resold a set for $900,000 for one of our clients. And that prompted another of our clients to be interested in reselling. In this current album cover show we have a complete set here in the gallery that's priced at one and a quarter million. So those are the most valuable rock and roll photographs in the world, the Abbey Road set.

Baltin: How have you seen the value evolve?

Hartley: The first Abbey Road set we ever sold we sold for $40,000 and even then we were kind of like, "Can we possibly get that for it?" And of course now I've got a set on the wall at one and a quarter million and I'm talking about 2005. Did it go up in price? I guess you can say that. But, for me, it was worth that in the beginning. There just wasn't any comparative pricing to support that.

Baltin: What do you see becoming the next valuable commodities in the art world?

Theron Kabrich: That's big subject, but I was talking to a French couple a little while ago and I was talking about what I will call now the genre of pop culture as fine art, which 20 years ago we followed our nose and thought it was important because we were fine art dealers. And we started noticing it as something as something we just wanted to do. When you have your own business you can pretty much decide on whatever you think is cool. And we thought going into this area was an interesting place to highlight things that looked like art to us.

Baltin: Are there specific artists or bands though you think will become increasingly valuable?

Kabrich: Right now we're working with Shepard Fairey, who we've been working with three or four years, but I believe the iconography for their generation 100 years from now will be Shepard Fairey, Banksy, JR, Invader and a number of other artists because they are paving new territory for how we communicate. And fine art is a form of communication, so we believe that's part of our mission, to incorporate urban artists into our narrative.

Baltin: And where did music fit into this for you?

Kabrich: About twenty percent of what we started to exhibit and incorporate to fascinate audiences that came into the gallery was the most iconic stuff. You look at Meet The Beatles or a Rolling Stones cover or a famous image of an icon it's instant recognition, "I know that shot. I've seen that before, I have that album." The other 80 percent that came out of that is the photographer who took a photo of the Beatles for the cover of the album also took photos of John Lennon sitting around with a panda bear stuffed animal or a fly on the wall or things that were the natural organic people at rest that gives insight to a viewer the experience that they could have been there.

Baltin: How will you expand the reach and audience beyond SF?

Kabrich: As far as the future, where we're going, the business plan is a broader narrative. Let's say out of six or seven billion people in the world I would say probably two billion are gonna relate to something we have in a very intimate, personal way. But we only get a grain of sand out of that group. So our whole goal is to reach more and more people with what we do in various ways.

And part of it's online, part of it's in co-producing films -- right now we're associate producers of several documentary films related to what we do, two other films are in the discussion stage. So communicating the message and edifying people through film is I think the future. But I think the future of the market is gonna go five, six, seven years from now, what we do here and what museums do is gonna have a virtual reality component that brings an experiential piece of visiting to what you might call a public venue. So you get an image, the sound, the words and the overall experience. So the future of the business is gonna have a virtual reality part of it.

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