Special to The Eagle

Selling-price records for American artwork were shattered on Wednesday as three Norman Rockwell depictions of small-town Americana, housed for nearly 20 years at the Stockbridge museum bearing his name, fetched a total of $57,783,000 at Sotheby's auction house in Manhattan.

"Saying Grace," which had a pre-auction estimate of up to $20 million, smashed two previous high points. At $46 million, it became the highest price paid for an American art work. It also tripled the record for a Rockwell illustration -- $15.4 million for "Breaking Home Ties" at a 2006 Sothe by's auction.

"The Gossips" yielded $8,453,000, while "Walking to Church" went for $3,245,000. Both had also resided at the Rockwell Museum.

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Sotheby’s shows the popular Norman Rockwell masterpiece "Saying Grace," which is heading for the
FILE - This undated file photo provided by Sotheby's shows the popular Norman Rockwell masterpiece "Saying Grace," which is heading for the auction block. It is among seven works by The Saturday Evening Post illustrator going on sale at Sotheby's in New York on Dec. 4. (AP Photo/Sotheby's, File) (Uncredited)
Seven other Rockwell paintings were also up for auction.

"It's a great day for Rockwell, for believing in the importance of this American artist and our friend," said Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, who attended the auction along with Stephanie Plunkett, the museum's deputy director and chief curator. The three art works were shipped from the museum to Sotheby's on Sept. 2.

The paintings had been loaned to the Stockbridge museum by the three sons of Kenneth J. Stuart, Sr., the Saturday Evening Post art director who had worked closely with the artist during his nearly 50-year relationship with the magazine. Rockwell had presented the works to Stuart as gifts.

At the time, Rockwell wrote to Stuart: "The encouragement and freedom you give me in my work shows what a great impresario you are. It is great to feel that your art editor is 100 percent for you, and is a real friend. This may sound a bit flowery, but it is completely sincere, and I do want to express my thanks to you."

As is typical in high-end auctions, most purchasers remain anonymous, though it was revealed that the 1953 "Walking to Church" was purchased by art dealer Rick Lapham on behalf of an unnamed client. Among the prominent collectors of Rockwell works are film directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The previous record for an American painting was set in 1999, also at Sotheby's, when George Bellows' "Polo Crowd" sold for $27.7 million.

"It's nice to see recognition of Rockwell spread around the world," said Norton Moffatt. "It was really a thrilling moment."

She cited "Saying Grace" as "one of his finest works, joining the ranks of ‘The Four Free doms' and other anchors of our collection."

Asked whether she was startled by its selling price, Norton Moffatt told The Eagle in a telephone interview from Man hattan that "when you have a singularly unique, im portant painting like that which is not likely to come on the market, it has the ability to command a unique price."

She called the sales price "testimony to what an important figure Rockwell was. We've been his leading champions all these years and think of him as friend and neighbor. Now we're seeing the international appreciation and recognition of his calibre and importance."

It took just under 10 minutes for "Saying Grace" to be snapped up by a purchaser who outbid rivals during the fast-paced auction.

"Auctioneers are like symphony conductors," Norton Moffatt explained. "They have to keep an eye all over the room." They also take bids on the phone and from the Internet.

She described a "very quiet, calm" atmosphere when the bidding opened at about $13 million and began climbing in $100,000, $500,000 and then $1 million increments.

"It's very suspenseful, almost as if time slows down. You feel hearts pounding, then it's slow-motion, going from three or four bidders to the remaining two," said Norton Moffatt. "Then it feels like a tennis match, you hold your breath and the pace slows down as bidders consider how much they're willing to pay. It's calm, exciting and intense all at the same time."

After the closing bid was accepted, "a big cheer erupted in the room," she said.

As she has in the past, Norton Moffatt expressed the hope that the three works might be returned to Stockbridge by the purchasers some day, either as a loan or a bequest.

"Saying Grace" appeared as cover art for the Saturday Evening Post's Thanksgiving edition in 1951; four years later, the magazine's readers voted the illustration as their favorite Rockwell work. Among the models used by the artist for his drawing was his son, Jarvis.

Rockwell was paid $3,500, which in today's dollars would be about $30,000. The painting depicts a boy and an old woman bowing their heads in prayer at a busy restaurant.

"The Gossips," a 1948 magazine cover, was a montage that included the artist, his wife Mary, and several friends and neighbors wagging their fingers and chattering on the phone.

"Walking to Church" was based on the Vermeer painting "The Little Street." Rockwell translated the scene to an urban street setting, depicting family members in their Easter finery, each clutching Bibles.

Rockwell died in Stockbridge in 1978 at the age of 84. He had produced 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post starting in 1916 before moving on to Look Magazine and other outlets in the 1960s.

Information from The New York Times and The Associated Press was included in this report.