Collectors Clamor for Warhol

"Norman Rockwell’s greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliché," stated a Washington Post critique of a 2010 exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings at the Smithsonian.

But Rockwell, the famous American illustrator who died in 1978, is now undergoing a major critical and financial reappraisal.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network may wish to reconsider the value of collecting Norman Rockwell artworks.

This week, the major auction houses built their spring sales of American art around two Rockwell paintings: “After the Prom,” at Sotheby’s, and “The Rookie,” at Christie’s. “After the Prom” sold for $9.1 million on Wednesday; “The Rookie” for $22.5 million on Thursday.

Rockwell isn’t yet at the level of Francis Bacon (top price at auction: $142.4 million), Picasso ($104.5 million) or Andy Warhol ($105.4 million) — all of whom critics eventually embraced — but he’s poised to join a select handful of artists whose work is instantly recognizable not just for its artistic quality but, for better or worse, the many millions it took to acquire one.

Contrarian Investment

Apart from any critical reappraisal, Rockwell’s paintings show that in art, as well as in the stock market, it can pay to be a contrarian.

Rockwell’s paintings have turned out to be a singularly good investment.

"After the Prom” last sold at Sotheby’s in 1995 for $880,000. This past week’s sale price represents a compounded annual rate of return of 13.1 percent, compared with 7.9 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index over the same period.

The explanation for the improbable surge in the price of Rockwell paintings dates to at least 2001, when the Guggenheim Museum mounted a major retrospective of Rockwell’s work.

Coming just after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the show may have touched a nerve with an American public hungering for the reassurance of traditional American values captured by Rockwell’s vision. The show set an attendance record at the Guggenheim.

The year after the Guggenheim show, “Rosie the Riveter,” one of Rockwell’s most famous images, sold for close to $5 million at Sotheby’s, setting a record for the artist.

The painting was later sold again for an undisclosed price to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., the museum founded by the Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

In 2006, “Breaking Home Ties” set another record, selling for $15.4 million, far above its $4 million to $6 million estimate. (The buyer is believed to have been H. Ross Perot, the former presidential candidate and founder of Electronic Data Systems. The painting has been seen hanging in his office.)

Rockwell also gained a Hollywood stamp of approval. Two of the country’s most famous film directors, George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Steven Spielberg (“E.T.”) have acquired numerous Rockwells, often loaning works for museum retrospectives {see today's Featured Art Video}.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., observed: “What we’re seeing in the marketplace is that collectors, in a sense, are catching up with the incredible quality and enduring meaning and message in Rockwell’s paintings.

"There are a handful of his works that have iconic resonance, enduring meaning, and those pieces are what we’re seeing really take off in the marketplace.”

Adored by Warhol

Andy Warhol was among the first prominent artists to recognize Rockwell’s merit.

He attended a gallery show in 1968 and bought two works, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy (whom Warhol himself used as an iconic portrait subject) wearing a strand of pearls, and “Extra Good Boys and Girls," which shows another iconic figure — Santa Claus — plotting his route on a map of the world.

Museums are now clamoring for the best examples of Rockwell’s work, but few can afford it.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, displayed “The Rookie” for six days this year and drew large crowds.

Rockwell sold one of his most famous images, “Town Meeting,” an oil study for “Freedom of Speech,” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1952 for $100, and, according to The Saturday Evening Post, let out a “gladsome yelp” when he learned the Met had bought it. It was the first museum to buy one of his works.

Unfortunately, the painting is nowhere to be seen in the Met’s recently expanded and reorganized American wing. The museum’s website says simply: “Not on view.”