Rockwell art values continue rise in recent auctions

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Art collectors remain willing to write big checks for works by Norman Rockwell, November sales confirm, advancing the market clout of an American artist once dismissed as a sentimental illustrator.

Though sales of two major Rockwell paintings owned by the Berkshire Museum are in limbo, seven other works by the late Stockbridge artist were sold by the two major New York City auction houses this month.

More than half sold for more than their bid estimates, according to results released by Christie's and Sotheby's.

None brought the eye-popping, eight-figure prices expected for the Berkshire Museum's paintings, or other Rockwell works sold at auction in the past few years.

In December 2013, Sotheby's sold the artist's painting "Saying Grace" for $46 million, more than twice its expected high bid and the most ever for a Rockwell work at auction.

After that breakthrough, the artist's "The Rookie" sold the following spring, at Christie's, for $22.5 million, and his "After the Prom" went for $9.1 million at Sotheby's. In 1995, that same work, which depicts two teens facing each other atop soda counter stools, had sold for $880,000.

The "Saying Grace" sale wrapped up a year in which Rockwell pieces brought in $80 million at various auctions, leading the publication artnet to suggest that any remaining "stigma" over Rockwell's work was evaporating.

Most observers date the turnaround in Rockwell's reputation to a major retrospective show, organized in part by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, that closed with a stop at the Guggenheim Museum in 2001. The exhibit set an attendance record for the New York City museum.

Trustees of the Berkshire Museum announced in July that they plan to sell two Rockwell paintings and 38 other works in a controversial deaccession. They hope to raise $60 million or more to improve the museum's financial condition, which they call dire, and to renovate the South Street facility.

The state Attorney General's Office won an injunction Nov. 10 that stopped the sales, pending further court action.

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Bidding was most aggressive this month for "What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker"), which sold Nov. 21 at Christie's for $7,287,500. That price includes the "hammer" value set at auction and a fee known as a buyer's premium paid to the auction house. The bid estimate for the work had been $4 million to $6 million.

The painting shows a boy in jeans and a sweater peering in as an elderly craftsman works on a timepiece inches from his face.

No other work in the 48-lot sale came close in price. Another Rockwell painting, "Girl Returning from Camp," was the third-highest sale value at the same Christie's auction of American art, fetching $2,292,500. That price fell within the expected bid range of $2 million to $3 million.

A third Rockwell piece sold by the house last week, "The Christmas Coach," went for $996,500, just over the bid range of $600,000 to $900,000.

Before the Berkshire Museum holdings were pulled from a Nov. 13 American art auction at Sotheby's, two Rockwell paintings were together expected to bring bids of $27 million to $40 million.

Without the museum's paintings, the total value of Sotheby's auction was $19.4 million, including the buyer's premiums.

That overall auction figure, covering proceeds from the sale of 58 lots, is less than the high bid estimate for just one of the museum's Rockwell works, "Shuffleton's Barbershop."

The auction house placed a bid estimate of $20 million to $30 million on that single painting.

The other Rockwell painting owned by the Pittsfield museum, "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop," carried a bid estimate of $7 million to $10 million. Both were given to the museum by the artist.

Though the museum's Rockwell paintings remain for now in a vault at Sotheby's, the auction house Nov. 13 did put up for sale five other works by the artist from different owners.

Two sold for considerably more than their bid estimates. "No Credit Given" sold for $771,000, above its high bid estimate of $500,000. The other, "Two Old Men and Dog: Hunting," had the same bidding range but went for $855,000.

The artist's "Study for Education" had a range of $80,000 to $120,000 and sold for $93,750. Rockwell's "Making Good in a Boy's Camp" sold for $275,000, within its $200,000 to $300,000 bid range.

A fifth work, "Christmas: Knight Looking in Stained Glass Window," had been estimated to go for $1.2 million to $1.8 million but did not sell.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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