Bigger than life itself, Reese Palley has staged some of the art world’s most daring gallery promotions

The ultimate publicity hound: bigger than life itself, Reese Palley has staged some of the art world’s most daring gallery promotions

Murray Raphel

Someday there will be a hall of fame for the most innovative gallery owners. When that day comes, the first person inducted might well be Reese Palley.

In 1976, Palley used a $700 bank loan to open a sophisticated “object d’art shop” on the boardwalk inside Atlantic City’s Marlborough Blenheim Hotel. Through the years, he created outstanding, original and flamboyant promotions that made him not only successful but garnered him world-wide publicity when he rented two 747s to take his best customers to the opening of his new gallery in Paris. More on that later.

Palley is easily recognizable. His wild shock of crazy, messed-up white hair looks like it was combed with an egg beater. His black, horn-rimmed glasses front his grinning, elfish face with a small, scruffy goatee. His usual attire consists of a black turtleneck shirt, black pants, black socks and black shoes. He does have one splash of color–a red bandana, which he often carries in his back pocket to, in his words, “wipe off my clients’ kisses.”

Palley’s philosophy for success is simple: “I listen to what people need. It’s easy to sell them what they want.” Or, in his case, create what they want.

In 1957, a woman named Helen Boehm walked into Palley’s Atlantic City gallery with a flannel bag full of her husband’s, sculptor Edward Marshall Boehm’s, porcelains. At the time, Boehm was struggling for recognition, and his wife was his traveling salesperson. She could only afford short trips from their Trenton headquarters, and Atlantic City, with its large number of summertime tourists, seemed like a logical destination.

Palley bought a few small pieces, which sold quickly. One day, a customer came in, liked what he saw, and bought 18 birds at $300 each.

Palley saw this as a sign, and decided to invest heavily in Boehm’s birds. In the years that followed, Boehm became rather famous. Since he couldn’t keep up with the growing demand, Boehm began to set quotas for his dealers based on previous purchases. Palley had one of the largest allotments.

Realizing how many fans the artist had, Palley created a national convention of Boehm collectors in Atlantic City. They came, they saw, and Palley, of course, conquered, selling the next year’s entire production of Boehm birds before they were even made–a $2-million sale, which caught the attention of The New York Times and a slew of national magazines.

Palley was on a roll. But his next promotion would be even better.

Back in the 1970s, casinos had yet to arrive in Atlantic City. Pedestrian traffic on the boardwalk dwindled in the wintertime, leaving the city’s hotels with large blocks of empty rooms.

One winter, Palley offered to rent a large number of rooms at a ridiculously low price. The hotel owners and managers agreed, eager to have the rooms filled because of the revenue the hotels would receive on meals and other hotel activities.

Palley invited his big-spending customers to come to Atlantic City for a weekend house party and a couple of nights at one of the city’s hotels. More than 1,000 people accepted. While they were in town, many of them dropped into Palley’s gallery to thank him. While they were there, many of them browsed–and bought.

Palley’s other promotions included sending his best customers free tickets to New York’s Whitney Museum with the message, “Go. Learn something. His reasoning? If you re trying to sell art, get [customers] in the habit of looking at it.”

Palley’s Boehm customers received a regular newsletter with a list of available artwork. He also invited a group of collectors to Boehm’s live aviary and gardens near Trenton, with a pre-visit picnic at a nearby park.

But the biggest, most extravagant promotion was his 50th birthday promotion, which made headlines from the Fiji Islands all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Palley wanted to celebrate his 50th birthday and thought it was a good idea to tie in the opening of his art gallery in Paris, which featured many artists well-known in the United States.

A few weeks before his birthday, Salvador Dali’s agent approached Palley with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Dali had painted face cards of four jacks, queens, kings and aces and was offering them as limited-edition lithographs–170 lithographs of each card making a total of 2,720 cards.

On hearing about the offer, a bright light must have appeared above Palley’s head.

This was a what the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once described as a “McGuffin,” in other words, a gimmick that’s necessary to tie everything together.

Palley said he would buy all 2,720 (with an option to cancel if he could not sell them). When asked what he paid for the lithographs, Palley once replied, “The price was fine.”

Palley then created a crude, simple flyer to send to his customers. The flyer explained his plan to spend his birthday in Paris opening his new gallery and invited his friends to come along with him. He also mentioned the Dali lithographs, which he offered to sell for $650 each–with an added bonus.

The purchase of a lithograph would entitle each buyer to a four-day weekend for two in Paris, including round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations. Palley also guaranteed a full refund for anyone who ever became unhappy with the lithograph he or she purchased.

When he mailed the invitations, Palley was still unsure whether or not he could fill the 350-seat jet that he’d already chartered. But in just four days, every seat was filled, so he chartered another jet, which sold out in 10 days. That’s 700 lithographs sold for $650, making a grand total of $455,500.

On the flight to Paris, Palley also offered paintings by several major American artists for 10 percent off their original price.

When the plane arrived in Paris. Palley wouldn’t let anyone off until they put on a photographic mask of his face. Imagine the shock of customs officials when they saw 700 Reese Palleys coming at them (a photograph of their arrival made dozens of European newspapers.)

At the hotel, Palley set up a temporary shop in the lobby where he took orders for Boehm plates. He ended up selling 400 sets at $300 each, as well as several more Dali lithographs.

Did Palley make a million-dollar profit from the trip? If not, at least he made a lot of new friends. Soon after the Paris stunt, Palley was asked what the theme of his next promotion would be. “Sailing,” he replied, adding that it was his true passion. And what is the name of Palley’s sailboat you ask? It’s one that also defines his philosophy of doing business: “Unlikely.”

Murray Raphel is one of the nation’s leading marketing experts and author Raphel Marketing at (802) 751-8802 or E-mail

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