Auctions Market USA

Rockwell results illustrate market’s potential for growth

Illustration is enjoying a boom in popularity—and museums are already being priced out

Rockwell’s Saying Grace, 1951, sold for a record $46m at Sotheby’s this month, more than triple the previous auction record for the artist, also set at Sotheby’s in 2006 with the sale of Breaking Home Ties, 1954, for $15.4m (est $4m-$6m)

The success of seven paintings by Norman Rockwell at Sotheby’s New York this month points to the growing demand for works by the US illustrator, best known for his homey magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, a Philadelphia-based magazine.

Rockwell’s oil on canvas Saying Grace, 1951, sold for a record $46m, far outstripping its presale estimate of $15m to $20m (final price includes buyer’s premium; estimates do not). It more than tripled the previous auction record for the artist, which was set at Sotheby’s in 2006 with the sale of Breaking Home Ties, 1954, for $15.4m (est $4m-$6m). The other works on offer on 4 December also sold well, including The Gossips, 1948, which made $8.5m (est $6m-$9m), and Walking to Church, 1953, which went for $3.2m (est $3m-$5m).

The paintings came from the estate of Kenneth Stuart, who worked with Rockwell for 18 years as his art director at the Saturday Evening Post. The works were a gift from the artist, who called Stuart his “favourite art editor”, and came to the market after a 13-year legal battle between Stuart’s sons for control of their father’s estate. Three of the paintings (Saying Grace, The Gossips and Walking to Church) had previously been on long-term loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

The artist’s prices have been rising for the past decade. “When I first started working at Sotheby’s in 1972, we sold a Saturday Evening Post cover of a hat-check girl for $11,000, which was a record at the time,” says Peter Rathbone, formerly the head of (and now a consultant to) the American art department at Sotheby’s. “Now, we regularly see works selling for more than $1m.” In May, He’s Going to be Taller than Dad, 1939, sold at the auction house for $2.6m, well above its pre-sale estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.

The increasing popularity of illustration is not limited to Rockwell, says Debra Force, formerly the head of the American art department at Christie’s and now a private dealer in Manhattan. At Heritage Auctions’ sale of illustration in late October, a number of lots sold for more than their estimates. Rockwell led the pack with The Song of Bernadette, 1944, which went for $605,000 (est $400,000-$600,000), but other artists also sold well, including Gil Elvgren, whose Lucky Dog (Dog Gone Robber), 1958, made $173,000 (est $50,000-$75,000). Stevan Dohanos’s The Future Fireman, 1953, more than doubled its upper estimate of $50,000, selling for $106,250, and N.C. Wyeth’s I Thank Him for the Knowledge That I Shall Not Tell! fetched $103,125 (est $60,000-$80,000).

Works by Wyeth, whose record was set when Wild Bill Hickok at Cards, 1916, sold for $2.2m at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in 2007, are much in demand. So too are pieces by Maxfield Parrish, whose painting Daybreak, 1922, set an auction record for the artist in 2006 when it sold for $7.6m (est $5m-$7m) at Christie’s.

Works produced between 1890 and 1940, a period often referred to as the “Golden Age of Illustration”, are also popular. A watercolour by Jessie Willcox Smith, How Doth the Little Busy Bee, around 1910, sold for $386,500 at Sotheby’s in 2011, whereas a generation ago, her price range “would have been more like $2,000 to $3,000”, says Judy Goffman Cutler, the owner of New York’s American Illustrators Gallery and co-founder of the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island.

Illustration has often been viewed as ephemera—and the category is a large one that encompasses commercial reproduction works such as album covers, movie posters, advertising and sci-fi images, as well as racy calendar pin-ups. Nowadays, however, there are increasingly “fewer distinctions between what people think of as fine art and illustration”, Force says.

Museums get in on the act

Major museums are playing a large role in breaking down these barriers. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has displayed works by Parrish and Rockwell alongside paintings by artists such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. “Including Rockwell threw some people for a loop,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, the chair of the museum’s art of the Americas department. New Kids in the Neighborhood, 1967, was on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum and has since been returned, but the Boston institution is keen to replace it. “We’ve been looking for the right Rockwell to buy for a number of years,” Davis says.

In the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, Parrish’s The Lantern Bearers, 1908, hangs in the same room as Impressionist paintings by artists including Mary Cassatt. “Parrish was well-known for the luminosity in his work,” says Manuela Well-Off-Man, an assistant curator. The decision to hang the painting in the context of Impressionist works invites “our guests to compare [them] and think about how artists from other movements treated light and colour”, she says.

The rising prices are proving prohibitive for some; Davis says that high prices for works by Rockwell and Parrish have made purchases by museums such as his more difficult. But despite the cost at the top, there is a level below where works are relatively affordable. “We have many buyers who are young; they are interested in art and they want original works, not posters of things they can’t afford,” Goffman Cutler says.

The enthusiasm for illustration is partly due to the fact that “these images speak to so many people—you don’t have to explain them”, Goffman Cutler says. The New York-based collector Michelle Portnof agrees. She has been collecting work by artists such as Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent for 20 years, and has seven works by Rockwell. “They fit in very well,” she says. “I’ve liked Rockwell since I was a little girl—you can talk to anyone anywhere about him.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, we mistakenly reported that Rockwell’s sons were involved in the battle to control their father’s estate. It was actually Kenneth Stuart's sons.

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