His name was Emerik Fejes. We visited him in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia in 1967. Betty and I had gone to Belgrade for an international space conference that was being held there. That was behind the iron curtain in those days. A friend, Irwin Hersey who was at the conference, was in the art world and had known Fejes. He had bought some paintings from him and had them in his hotel room. So we went up to his room and he showed us his paintings. They were terrific. We liked them. He suggested we go to Novi Sad and get some of our own.
So Betty and I and a guy by the name of Don Sandler, who was working for Hughes Aircraft Company and who had a little Porsche automobile, decided we would drive to Novi Sad, about 100 kilometers from Belgrade, but it took several hours to get there. We had to go on a primitive dirt road. We found Fejes and his wife in an upper floor apartment. Fejes was a retired button maker. He started painting on his own. He was a complete primitive, a naive as they say. He painted with his paints in little bottle caps, and he painted with the back of a paper match. Fejes had a whole pile of paintings in his apartment. We picked out one that we liked and asked him how much it was. He didn’t speak English but knew a little German. So we used quite a bit of sign language. There was some confusion because they had just changed from old dinars to new dinars, and it was either 100 to 1 or 1,000 to 1. The dinar wasn’t worth much, so we weren’t quite sure what it was. We thought we were buying one painting, but he took ten of them and gave them to us for the amount of money that we had. I later figured out that we paid about $13.00 apiece for them, and he was glad to get it. These were paintings that he’d done from post cards. He had never traveled, never been anyplace, and his wife was kind of intolerant of what he was doing until he was discovered. She had thrown out a lot of his old paintings.
We brought the paintings back to London and my colleague there, Jack Carter, admired them. So I said, “Well, we probably can get some more.” So I wrote to a Marine Corp captain that I met who was in the embassy and sent him a check for $200.00--Jack put in $100.00 and I put in $100.00--and asked him if he would go to Novi Sad and buy some paintings from Fejes. We gave him some post cards for him to copy which he wouldn’t copy, but he did get paintings from him. So all together we had 23 I think.
We brought the Fejes paintings back to the U.S. with us. There was an art gallery in New York, the St. Etienne Gallery, run by Otto Kallir who handled primitives. He discovered Grandma Moses. He had some Fejes paintings for sale at $500 each, but he personally didn’t like them and they weren’t selling very well. He put our paintings up for sale in his gallery but they didn’t sell. Then we displayed them a couple of other places and they still didn’t sell. Then one day I got a telephone call from Dr. Kallir and he said, “Do you still have those Fejeses? How many do you have?”
I said, “Yes, I do. I have eleven of them left.”
He said, “Well, I’ll buy them all. We have a German dealer who is buying them.”
So I wrapped them up and sent them up to him, and he sent me $500 apiece for them. So I got a check for $5,500. Some of it was Jack’s and some of it was mine. I remember stopping on the way home after I got the check and buying a case of champagne.
I think Fejes was written up in a magazine as well.
Yes, he has been over the years. I don’t know whether Yugoslav primitives are still in demand or not. He’s not one of the top Yugoslav painters, but he’s well enough known so that he’s in many collections. His paintings now sell for several thousand dollars.
This excerpted from an Oral History of Burton Edelson, March 6, 2001, draft 3.....The following is an interview with Burt Edelson. The interview is taking place on Tuesday, March 6, 2001 in Burt’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The interviewer is Ellen Robinson Epstein. These tapes were commissioned by Burt in honor of his 75th birthday.
One of the questions that Danny sent in was that in Yugoslavia you discovered a painter that you liked, who you actually sent me to see, which I had totally forgotten about until Danny sent this question in.
I sent you to see?
Yes, because I went to Yugoslavia in 1968 and you had just found him. You said, “Oh, go meet him.”
And did you?
I had forgotten that, too.
I had totally forgotten about it. He said that he wants you to tell the story about purchasing these paintings.