can become an expert at anything, if you put your mind to it, in 10 years.”
Those words were the beginning of an odyssey that has lasted more than
six decades. That simple statement began a treasure hunt that continues
to this day, having passed from one generation to the next, and which has
led to the amassment of one of the finest art collections in the Brazos
Valley. That controversial statement, made by Stanleigh B. Vinson during
a friendly debate, spawned a bet in which Vinson promised to become the
world’s authority on Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though the details of the bet
have become obscured by time, the outcome has not. Vinson won the bet.
He did, in fact, become an authority on Edgar Rice Burroughs.
He amassed an incredible collection of Burroughs memorabilia, including
first edition texts, original artwork, toys, newspaper clippings and movie
posters. He also befriended James Allen St. John, the artist responsible
to illustrating more than half of Burroughs’ books. From that friendship
sprang a wealth of collectibles, oil paintings that were the original cover
art for such Burroughs books as “Tarzan,” “The Warlord of Mars” series
and “At the Earth’s Core.”
It also forged a bond between the two men, borne of the mutual admiration
of both the artwork and the text that it represents. The bond was so strong,
in fact, that when St. John died, Vinson paid the living expenses of St.
John’s widow, Ellen, and visited her often.
As Vinson’s health declined, he decided to donate some of his collection
to the Edgar Rice Burroughs Corp. in Los Angeles. Run by Burroughs’ family,
the corporation planned to put together a museum, but after several years
the donated collectibles remained in a warehouse, and some had been sold.
A few years later, Vinson died, and what remained of his collection was
willed to his two children, one of whom was then a young professor of entomology
at Texas A&M University, S. Bradleigh Vinson. Neither child had much
interest in the inheritance, however, and the collection went into storage.
Then about 10 years ago, Vinson convinced his sister to sell him the
other half of the collection, and he was amazed at what he found. Going
through the boxes with one of his father’s old collecting buddies, the
younger Vinson became hooked, much as his father had so many years before.
He picked up where his father left off, and has managed to amass what he
considers the most comprehensive collection of St. John/Burroughs artwork
in the world. Whereas the elder Vinson could visit the publishing houses
60 years ago, collecting today is a much different task, with its own set
of difficulties. Vinson has a list of the items he still desires, but much
of the list is simply unavailable. It is in the hands of other collectors,
who have no desire to part with it or, sadly, it has been lost forever
Ironically, although “Tarzan” might make up the largest part of his
collection, it is “The Warlord of Mars” series that takes up the largest
part of his heart. “I got interested in Edgar Rice Burroughs more because
of the science fiction than because of Tarzan,” Vinson said. “I like all
the weird animals.” Not a surprising statement, considering he spends his
professional life studying, and teaching about, bugs. Vinson says that
his affinity for bright colors is quite likely the root of his love of
insects. Indeed, it has been a lifelong fascination, as he notes with a
smile, “My mother always told me my first word was not ‘mother’ or ‘father,’
it was ‘ant,’ and I wasn’t talking about Aunt Nancy, either.” So it is
also not surprising that he would be drawn more to the visual aspects of
the collection, whereas his father was more stimulated by the reading.
“ My father got into collecting because he loved the stories, I got
into it because I like the artwork,” he said. While his father concentrated
on collecting books, newspaper clippings about Burroughs and St. John paintings,
Vinson has expanded the collection to include other artists of Burroughs’
work, such as Frank Schoonover, and has recently added a whole new branch
of the Tarzan genre to his collection, Disney. With the 1999 release of
the animated “Tarzan,” a whole new set of memorabilia flooded the marketplace,
and Vinson eagerly began scooping it up. Toys, books, posters, even a light
switch cover, Disney’s marketing campaigned covered all the bases, and
soon that part of his collection filled an entire room.
Burroughs collectors have regular conventions, called “dum dums,” where
they can meet with one another, view each other’s collections, and trade
pieces. These conventions owe their moniker to Tarzan’s ape language, in
which “dum dum” translates to “a meeting of apes.”
Today’s collector also has technology to aid his never-ending quest.
“EBay changed things,” Vinson said. “The first days were tough. A few people
were out there, willing to buy at any price.” Consequently, the prices
for rare memorabilia reached outrageous levels, and much of the most sought-after
material was consolidated into a few collections. Vinson further notes
that while the bidding on rarer items can be fierce, the collectors are
friends, so it never gets too heated. The fact that many of the collectors
take different routes also eases competition somewhat.
He is one of the few Burroughs collectors who also collect the Disney
memorabilia, and his collection of foreign material makes his collection
unique. He has Disney promotional merchandise from Mexico, India, Russia
and Southeast Asia. He worries that now that the Disney movie is five years
old, and with seemingly no new “Tarzan” coming out, the next generation
will not be interested in Burroughs’ work.
He does not view his collection as an investment, however. So no matter
what the monetary value may be, it will always be collecting that holds
the most value. “I come from a family of collectors,” he said. “I am a
collector, my father was a collector, my grandfather was a collector.”
As for the future of his pieces, he’s not sure whether his son will want
to continue with the collecting. Vinson plans to donate his collection
to a Burroughs museum in Chicago and a library in Louisville, but keep
the ownership within the family. He doesn’t want to see his collection
sold off piece by piece, as some of his father’s was back in the 1960s.
“ Sometimes I think I’m buying back my father’s stuff,” Vinson said
of some of his collection. “I’ve learned some lessons."
One of artist James Allen St. John’s paintings
was used for the Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” comic
St. John is responsible for illustrating more than half
of Burroughs’ books.