The Haiti Paintings Story
A true story of when I was in Haiti
Written 2010 and rewritten 02/2016 unedited
In 1967, I had an automotive supply company located in Miami Florida. A large portion of our business was selling to the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.
We always had quite a few customers come to us from the island of Hispanola. The island was one third Haiti and the other two thirds was the Dominican Republic.
I had never really had the opportunity to visit any of our customers in Haiti until a good friend of mine called me in 1967 and requested that I come to Haiti to assist him in removing the railroad there.
So in 1967 I went to Haiti, and while I was there, tending to the railroad business, I had the opportunity to visit with many of the customers that I had been doing some parts with for many years.
On one trip to Haiti I brought along a good friend and business associate, his name was Paul Sherlock. Paul was one of my suppliers in Miami, and I thought it would be a good idea to introduce Paul to my customers in Haiti.
One of my better customers was a Haitian fellow named Alex that I knew had a business located somewhere in downtown Port au Prince Haiti.
When we went there, I was very surprised to see that he had a nice two story concrete building. On the first floor he had a long parts counter where he sold auto parts to the local walk in type customers.
As we entered his building I noticed that it was difficult to walk up to his parts counter, as he had rows of local primitive art paintings of all sizes that were leaning up against the counter. Each row had around a dozen unframed paintings of assorted sizes from about 36 inches square down to about 12 inches square.
I recognized the style of paintings immediately, as they were all the kind of Haitian paintings you would see where ever there were Haitian artists selling to tourists. I knew they were called Haitian primitive art, as the style was exactly that, primitive.
Many of the paintings depicted Haitian farm life, they were all very colorful, but they were certainly not anything I would hang in my own house.
The owner of the business, Alex, had an office on the second floor of the building, with the office having a large picture window overlooking the parts counter on the first floor, so he spotted us right away.
Alex recognized me immediately, and came downstairs with his arms open to greet us, I introduced Paul, and Alex wanted to show us his entire operation.
Alex walked us around his entire building, and there was no question he was running a good business.
Once we were downstairs again and getting ready to say our good by’s, I asked Alex what he was doing with all the Haitian paintings leaning against his parts counter. He said what we saw in rows there was nothing, he had plenty more, and he told us how he got them.
Alex said that Haiti had a lot of itinerant artists, they were guys that liked to paint pictures mostly depicting life in Haiti, although there were some painters that painted more traditional things. Because these artists had no money, they would paint on anything they could find, some painted on pieces of wood and some used stretched flour sacks.
He said that many of the artists would do a painting on Monday morning, then they would spend the entire week trying to sell it to the tourists. If by Friday they hadn’t sold the painting, they came to Alex, and he gave them $2.00 for each painting.
With the $2.00 the artists would buy some food and a bottle of cheap rum. They would get drunk and sleep until Monday morning when they would paint another painting.
What a story, that was, so I looked over the paintings, and some of them I thought were pretty good. I wondered if there was a market in Miami to sell this kind of art.
I suggested to Alex that I would like to try selling the art in Miami, so I took out $100.00 and gave it to him. I said when you get a chance send about 50 of the paintings to me collect by Air Haiti, Alex said he would do it.
About 30 days later I received a call from Air Haiti telling me there was a shipment that had arrived for my company, so my partner Don and I immediately got in my car and drove over to Air Haiti.
There, behind their building, sitting on the tarmac was a giant bundle bigger than my car. It was a bundle completely wrapped in sisal matting and tied with sisal cord every which way. It looked like a package coming out of the jungle somewhere.
I knew what it was, so I paid the freight bill and we proceeded to slice it open and see what Alex had sent us.
Not only had he sent the paintings, but he sent hand carved wooden picture frames to fit each one, so we loaded up the car and ended up making four trips to get all the paintings back to our building.
I was very excited, but my partner Don wasn’t so excited, he was never excited about anything coming from Haiti
I called Alex in Haiti and asked why he sent frames, he said they only cost him $2.00 ea and he thought it was a good idea. So he sent them. I spent the rest of the week nailing the pictures into the frames.
I didn’t have a clue as to how t0o sell the Haitian paintings in Miami, so I opened up the yellow pages in the phone book and looked under the headings “Art”, “Paintings”, etc. I made a list of people and started making phone calls.
My god, I had never heard so many negative people in my life. “No they said, no one wants, Haitian art, they were too tropical. They said, no one wants primitive black art, and no they wouldn’t come over and look at them.
After about ten or twelve calls I gave up making calls.
All the art experts in Miami, said I did a dumb thing, they said that the paintings were worthless, only a tourist in Haiti would want to buy one.
I called Alex in Haiti and told him the bad news, I think he already knew.
The paintings stood there in our building, and for weeks we had to walk around them where ever we went in the building, and my partner Don gave me the evil eye every time he tripped on one.
One day the wife of our next door neighbor came in, she said she loved a big flower oil painting we had. She asked how much it was and I said $20.00. She couldn’t move fast enough to buy it.
Next she brought in a friend and she bought a ship painting for $20.00.
The next day some city inspector came in and started to give us a hard time about some license and eventually he asked about a painting, so I gave him one and he left.
It took me about 6 months but I sold or gave away almost every painting, they were finally all gone except a small one that I think was painted on a piece of pressed wood out of a TV set.
After calculating all the costs and the air freight and everything else, I have to admit it was a big waste of time and loss of money. It was a waste of time because it was 1967.
Go in a Haitian or primitive art gallery today, those bright Haitian paintings start at $1000.00 ea. I even recognized the name of some of the painters. It was the same stuff all the art critics in Miami didn’t even want to look at in 1967.