A desire to live in a warm climate and the death of the artist Pablo Picasso changed Bill Mett's life forever.
Mett was a young lawyer working at the University of Wisconsin when he tired of the cold weather and decided to move to Hawaii, where he made his living practicing law and selling clothing through a retail chain he owned.
Eight days before Picasso died on April 8, 1973, Mett purchased an art gallery in Hawaii's biggest shopping center, Honolulu's Ala Moana Center, which he planned to use as an additional outlet to expand his Hawaii-based clothing chain.
The gallery was full of Picasso's works, which skyrocketed in value when the artist died. Mett, who says he knew nothing about art at the time, became an art dealer overnight when collectors anxious to obtain Picassos suddenly were willing to pay dearly to obtain them.
In the decade that followed Mett's fortuitous initial investment in art, he has combined shrewd marketing, intense commitment, a firm but friendly sales style, and a global network of contacts to build a chain of art galleries in Hawaii that he says is the largest retailer of art in the United States, selling "tens of millions" of dollars worth of art each year.
A large part of these millions in sales involve the mass reproduction of art objects originally created by well known artists and actors. A single original art object can sometimes generate millions of dollars in revenue through the sale of such reproductions.
But Mett has his critics -- some of them his competitors on the mainland -- who say he has used elaborate marketing techniques to sell art at prices well above prevailing market values to relaxed tourists on vacation in Hawaii, where the gallery chain is based. Mett says these charges are false.
Mett's "Center Art Galleries" chain is on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Maui, where he has capitalized successfully on the combination of millions of affluent tourists from around the world who visit the islands each year and an informal atmosphere on the beaches and in his galleries, in selling art suited to a wide array of tastes and budgets, ranging from commercial art by the comedian Red Skelton to original works by Marc Chagall and Norman Rockwell.
In contrast to the refined style of most art galleries, Center uses aggressive promotional and telemarketing campaigns to sell art to tourists once they return home, and Mett keeps in touch with collectors through special exhibits such as the one taking place in Washington now at The Watergate Hotel, which features the paintings and sculptures of Anthony Quinn, the actor featured at the Kennedy Center in the musical version of "Zorba."
Mett's galleries are open seven days a week, 14 hours a day, closing four hours early one night a year when the company has its annual Christmas ball, and Mett spends much of his time moving among them, meeting tourists who wander in after tiring of the white sandy beaches.
Mett's claim to be the largest art retailer cannot be confirmed because major art galleries do not make their annual sales public. Several New York art dealers said they believe Center Art Galleries is definitely one of the nation's biggest, even though it is based far from big cities on the East and West coasts, the traditional art retailing centers.
One of Center Art Galleries' successful strategies has been to gain the exclusive right to market the art of well known personalities such as Quinn and Skelton.
Some of Quinn's paintings on sale here are priced at $100,000. Some competing West Coast art dealers contend that Center Galleries sells much of its art, particularly prints, for prices that are way out of line with market prices elsewhere. Dealers also contend that sculptures and paintings by artists like Quinn who gained fame in other fields are expensive and risky investments -- collectors may have difficulty reselling such works because the auction and resale markets for such art are not very liquid, according to Mett's critics.
While Quinn is best known for his acting ability, the gallery has mass produced 999 original silkscreen prints of a self-portrait by the actor, and many of these prints signed by the artist have been sold for prices in excess of $1,000 each.
The large number of Quinn prints is unusual, according to an expert, who cautions consumers to be sure they fully understand how many copies there are of any art they buy. "For a contemporary original print, this is an unusually large number of prints relative to what is normal," said Andrew Robison, the National Gallery of Art's print expert.
Center faces little direct price competition, according to other art retailers and some former Center Art Galleries employes, because it has bought out all of the other serious galleries in Hawaii. That means the closest galleries with comparable art and art experts are thousands of miles away in California.
Center Galleries' skillful sales approach appeals to wealthy tourists -- who may or may not know much about art values. "The average businessman with some money to spend on a trip to Hawaii has worked hard and fast over the years so he didn't have much time for theater, ballet or art," said Marty Gordon, an independent print dealer in New York. "Some people become fools when it comes to art, and they Center Art Galleries salesmen offer this hard-driving businessman the chance to make money and have instant culture.
"A businessman wanders into the gallery and hears that some piece of art is a terrific investment, and that is something a businessman understands. Most of these same people would not be caught dead in a decent gallery because they would be terrified to go in," Gordon said.
Mett said that such remarks are driven by professional jealousy. He said he is "flattered" by the claims, which he says are "absolutely false."
"For us to be priced significantly higher would be suicide," Mett said, "since we compete with the world. Our clients do not come only from San Francisco or Los Angeles but they come from Frankfurt, Cologne and Zurich too, and we could not sell to major collectors around the world if our prices were not competitive."
Mett, a single man in his 40s who works almost all his waking hours, often gets only three or four hours of sleep a night. He says he is married to his business.
His fortunate timing in acquiring the Picasso art has not been the only stroke of luck, he says. Center Art Galleries is one of the biggest retailers of work by the artist Salvador Dali, Mett said. The gallery has had an unusual relationship with Dali since 1977 when Mett luckily bumped into an old friend from Wisconsin he had not seen for many years, Michael Ward Stout, in an elevator in New York's St. Regis Hotel. Stout turned out to be Dali's personal attorney, and Mett said that "from that point, our friendship re-bloomed."
The Center's strong interest in Dali's work sets it apart from some other galleries. Uncertainty regarding the authenticity and investment value of some of Dali's work has been the subject of much speculation in the press in the last several years and much controversy in the art world. There have been charges that the artist signed blank pieces of paper that subsequently were turned into "original Dali lithographs," even though the artist neither supervised nor had any direct involvement in their production.
Because of the difficulty in determining the investment value and authenticity of some Dali prints, both Gordon and David Bathurst, president of Christie's International, the prestigious art auction firm, have said they avoid handling post-1950 Dali prints.
Mett said Center Art Galleries guarantees "the absolute authenticity and title to every work of art acquired by our clients," a guarantee backed by Lloyds of London, adding that he has never had any problem with the Dali works Center Art Galleries sells.
Mett said he and his art curator, Marvin Wiseman, are two of only seven people ever admitted to Dali's private studio.
Several New York wholesalers who supply Center Art Galleries said Mett is the greatest innovator in the art business, noting that he sells an incredibly broad range of art in an informal atmosphere in his Hawaiian galleries, in sharp contrast to the formal atmosphere that prevails in most art galleries, where the range of art sold is more limited.
Mett said such innovations have been successful in building an international clientele, many of whom initially purchase inexpensive commercial works, "get to know us better," and later purchase high-priced, original works of art by museum-quality masters such as Chagall.
Admiring art wholesalers who supply him said Mett also has succeeded because he has an incredibly loyal staff of more than 200 individuals, and has been able to sell art to dignitaries, ambassadors and heads of state because he is an expert at courting them. Wiseman said Mett's sales to the royal family in Saudi Arabia have been so extensive that he has a special visa to enter and exit the country at any time.
Art wholesalers credit Mett for extensive philanthropic endeavors, which include an annual donation of art by Center Art Galleries to the Hawaiian Red Cross for its annual fund-raiser. Mett also teaches a business law course at a college in Honolulu, where he is described by the professor in charge of the course as "one of the most popular teachers in the entire university."
"I don't think there is a better promoter in the U.S. than this company, and he Mett is one of the greatest promoters in the world," said Mel Magidson, who supplies Center Art Galleries with original Dalis and Chagalls. "Millions of tourists go to Hawaii every year, and people can only lay on the beach for so long; the atmosphere he has created is very conducive to making a purchase."
"I travel to Hawaii as an art supplier to sell him and Mett treats me like a V.I.P.," said Irving Yamet, who said he sells art to galleries around the world. "He does not hesitate to pick up my expenses, have me met at the airport and give me every consideration that would make you think I was a buyer of his rather than a supplier," Yamet said.
According to a corporate profile it distributes, Center Art Galleries has an international clientele exceeding 50,000 people, with more than 70 percent of its business derived from repeat purchasers.
Center's eight galleries on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Maui are filled with trained "art consultants," some wearing Aloha shirts. Many of them had no previous experience in the art business before they became Center Art Galleries salesmen, and many are highly compensated through a combination of sales commissions and special bonuses.