Fumo's brush with greatness, $100 a gallon

Who pays nearly $100 for a gallon of white paint?

Of all the things that recently indicted State Sen. Vincent Fumo's Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods allegedly purchased with public and donated funds, it's the paint that has people shaking their heads.

Sure, Philadelphians can probably understand the Citizens' Alliance's alleged purchases of tiki torches and turkey-fryer accessories. That's regular-guy stuff.

But paint imported from Holland by a fellow known for standing up for the little man?

The paint purchases, which totaled "thousands of dollars," according to the Fumo indictment, seemed to irk U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan, who took pains last week to say that the "very expensive" paint was used in Fumo's home, his girlfriend's home, and in the Citizens' Alliance office.

The alleged excess summons to mind the $6,000 gold-and-burgundy floral shower curtain purchased by L. Dennis Kozlowski, former chief executive officer of Tyco International Ltd., who was sentenced to as much as 25 years in prison for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the company.

Like the shower curtain, the paint becomes an iconic symbol of unchecked greed. What's in this paint anyway - saffron, diamond dust, and truffles?

"Actually, it's all beef," said John Lahey, president of Fine Paints of Europe, the Vermont company that imports the paint.

He was speaking metaphorically, of course, saying that his paint contains the best pigment available.

"It's absolutely the most expensive paint in the United States," he added.

American-made paints, Lahey scoffed, are made with fillers and extenders that weaken and cheapen it. Get dirt on a wall, and you'll strip off a coat when you wash it.

Not Lahey's paint, Hollandlac (formerly known as Hascolac).

So proud is Lahey of his thick, liquid gold that his Web site connects highfalutin Hollandlac to the paints used by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Their masterly influence apparently improved Dutch paint through the centuries.

Thus, the paint-thirsty walls of Fumo's Citizens' Alliance benefited from this happy confluence of art and commerce.

"Hollandlac," Lahey said, "is used only by discriminating homeowners."

Maybe, but it hasn't quite made it into everyone's living room, according to Tom Delavan, editor at large at Domino, a home decor and style magzine.

"It's really expensive, and most people don't find it's worth it," Delavan said.

Actually, most rich people in America use premium Benjamin Moore paint, he said.

It is, in fact, the choice of professionals who paint multimillion-dollar homes, said Ted Provder, a chemist and director of the Coatings Research Institute, a group at Eastern Michigan University that tests paints. Benjamin Moore can cost $16 to $25 a gallon, he said.

Americans paint for the short term, knowing that they'll either move or change colors, Provder said. Europeans don't move as much, and think of paint as adding great value, so they're willing to pay more.

In the United States, the market for premium paint is no more than 5 percent, compared with more than 25 percent in Europe, Provder said.

Only two stores in Pennsylvania currently carry Hollandlac: Newtown Hardware in Newtown, Bucks County, and Stoner Decorating Center in Quarryville, according to Fine Paints of Europe. The Fumo indictment said Citizens' Alliance purchased the precious paint from Old City Paint, which no longer carries the brand.

"We sell a fair amount of the paint," said an employee at the Newtown store who would not give his name. "But not as much as any of our other lines of paint. Only people who've really researched their paints and want it to last will buy it."

Could be, but they'd have to be fairly rich people.

"I can't envision anyone who'd spend 100 bucks a gallon for paint," Provder said. "It is a very excessive price. The only people who might be willing to pay that much would be people for whom money is no object."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.