Record Prices for Norman Rockwell is Tip of the Illustration Art Market

Out-of-town guests and people who just went in for a drink called the hotel management to complain, local newspapers and bloggers all voiced their disapproval, finally San Francisco's Mayor Ed Lee joined in: San Francisco's 138 year-old Palace Hotel should not sell its 16 foot-long Maxfield Parrish painting, "Pied Piper," which had hung above the bar (familiarly called the Pied Piper Bar) since 1909. You could hardly blame the hotel's owner, the Hawai'i-based Kyo-ya Hotels & Resorts, which saw an asset that might have brought an estimated $3-5 million at Christie's May 23, 2013 auction of American art. Keeping it required higher insurance rates and greater security measures, all of which cost money. Still, the outcry was so great that the owners reversed their decision and decided to keep it. With room rates starting at $275 and going up to $1,300 a night, the Palace Hotel is not for everyone, but the Parrish painting is.

Perhaps, the response might have been as great for some other big painting, but this work, depicting the moment that the children of Hamelin are being led away from the town that wouldn't pay for its rat extermination, reflects what's so appealing about the art of illustration at its best. "These images speak to so many people. You don't have to explain them," which also brings in many people who are not otherwise art collectors. Roger Reed, president of New York's Illustration House, a long-time gallery of work by current and deceased illustrators, noted that his clientele consists of many types of buyers. "There are some people who may not know anything about art but just like Rockwell," he said. "Some buy illustration because it's good art, some because it's popular culture, some because it relates to things they grew up with." Collectors in the 40-60 age range grew up in what is called the Silver Age of comic book art (from the mid-1950s to 1970), and "now they have money and want to buy comic books that they used to read and that meant so much to them."

Big money, at last December's American art sale at Sotheby's, seven works by Rockwell earned 60 percent of the entire revenues for the auction. Topping the group was Rockwell's 1951 oil on canvas "Saying Grace," which earned $46,085,000, far outpacing the $15m-20m estimate and setting a new auction record for the artist, which last was set at Sotheby's in 2006 for Breaking Home Ties, 1954. That work sold for $15.4m (estimate $4m-$6m). Other pieces by the artist also did well in the Sotheby's sale, including the 1948 oil "The Gossips" ($8,453,000, estimate $6m-9m) and the 1953 oil "Walking to Church" ($3,245,000, estimate $3m-5m), as well as the 1954 oil study "Break Home Ties" ($905,000, estimate $200,000-300,000).

The seven Rockwell paintings in the December 4th sale at Sotheby's came from the estate of Kenneth J. Stuart, who had been the art director at the Saturday Evening Post from 1943 to 1962. According to his son, Kenneth J. Stuart, Jr., Rockwell had given the artworks to his father as was the artist's custom with admirers of his work, especially the art editors at the Post. Three of the Rockwell paintings in the sale ("Saying Grace, "The Gossips" and "Walking to Church") had been on long-term loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but they and the other four works by the artist were brought to the auction house following a 13 year-long lawsuit by two of Stuart's son's, Jonathan and William, against Kenneth Jr. over who controls their father's estate. Selling the seven works turned out to be the principal way in which the three brothers could resolve their dispute.

In years past, the world's top auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, were more apt to place works of illustration art in their lower price point arcade sales, but have more recently sold a growing number of significant works in this category as part of their major and mid-season American art sales, particularly over the past decade. Liz Sterling, director of Christie's American Paintings department, noted that while the majority of buyers are illustration art collectors and dealers, "there has been some crossover, where you see collectors of 19th century American art, particularly American landscape painting, buying works in this area."

Clearly, the broad acceptance of illustration as art still has a ways to go. However, the critically praised and well-attended 1999-2002 traveling exhibition "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," which made stops at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Guggenheim in New York, among other institutions, appeared to signal a willingness on the part of the fine art crowd to take at least one illustrator seriously as an artist.