• Rockwell classics at auction: $57.8M
     | December 07,2013

    This photo provided by Sotheby’s shows the popular Norman Rockwell masterpiece “Saying Grace,” which sold at auction this week for $46 million.

    NEW YORK — Three paintings by Norman Rockwell celebrating homey, small-town America, among the most popular of his 322 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, sold at Sotheby’s this week for a total of nearly $57.8 million, about twice their high estimate.

    The auction house’s York Avenue salesroom in Manhattan, filled with U.S. art dealers and collectors, went dead quiet while a tense 9½-minute bidding battle played out for “Saying Grace,” one of Rockwell’s best-loved scenes. It brought $46 million, well over its high estimate of $20 million and the most ever paid at auction for his work.

    Two contenders on different telephones — one represented by Elizabeth Goldberg, director of American art for Sotheby’s, and the other, Yasuaki Ishizaka, managing director of Sotheby’s Japan — tried to buy the painting, which ended up selling to Goldberg’s unidentified client.

    The 1951 oil, which depicts a boy and an elderly woman bowing their heads in prayer at a diner, topped a 1955 readers’ poll at The Saturday Evening Post four years after it appeared. (The magazine paid Rockwell $3,500 for the cover painting, equivalent to about $30,500 today.)

    Wednesday’s auction price smashed the previous high flyer, “Breaking Home Ties,” depicting a fresh-faced boy leaving home for the first time, which brought $15.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2006.

    Another favorite, “The Gossips,” a finger-wagging montage of friends, neighbors and Rockwell himself, had been expected to bring $6 million to $9 million and was snapped up for $8.45 million by another telephone bidder. When the image ran on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1948, the magazine was flooded with inquiries from readers wanting to know what the heads were gossiping about.

    The third canvas, “Walking to Church,” sold for $3.2 million to Rick Lapham, a U.S. paintings dealer who said he had bought it for a client. Lapham was one of two bidders for the painting, from the April 4, 1953, cover of The Post.

    Rockwell based its composition on a Vermeer painting, “The Little Street,” translating the scene to fit his idealized vision of an urban street scene, with family members in their Easter best, each clutching Bibles. He used a composite of buildings in Troy, N.Y., and a church steeple in Vermont, a state he lived in for about 15 years. The painting sold for $3.2 million with fees. It had been expected to fetch $3 million to $5 million.

    Asked why there had not been more competition for the painting, Lapham replied, “It’s stylistically different,” referring to Rockwell’s translation of an old-master painting.

    (Final prices include the buyer’s premium: 25 percent of the first $100,000; 20 percent from $100,000 to $2 million; and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)

    All three paintings had belonged to the magazine’s longtime art director, Kenneth J. Stuart, who had received them as presents from Rockwell while the two men worked together, from World War II to the eve of the Vietnam War. And Wednesday’s auction was the final chapter in years of bitter legal battles.

    When Stuart died in 1993, he left his entire estate to his sons — Ken Jr., William and Jonathan — in equal shares. But shortly after his death, William and Jonathan sued their older brother, Ken Jr., claiming that he had taken advantage of their ailing father, forcing him to sign papers to gain control of the fortune and contending that Ken Jr. had used estate assets for his own expenses.

    The brothers, who were secreted in a skybox above Sotheby’s salesroom watching the proceedings, recently settled out of court.

    Until the Rockwell works arrived at Sotheby’s this fall, they had been on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., for the past 18 years. But during Stuart’s lifetime, “Saying Grace” had adorned his office at The Post, and when he left the magazine, it hung in the family’s living room in Wilton, Conn. “Walking to Church” had been in the bedroom of Stuart’s wife, Katharine. (He never hung “The Gossips,” according to his children.) Wednesday’s auction also included several works on paper by Rockwell, also from the Stuarts. Top among them was a color study for “Breaking Home Ties,” from 1954, which brought $905,000, more than three times its $300,000 high estimate. Again, the buyer was bidding by telephone.

    Jonathan Stuart said that he had no clue who bought the family’s artworks, but he said everyone was “very happy, exhilarated.”

    “We set an American art record,” he added, referring to the $46 million sale of “Saying Grace,” which Sotheby’s was touting as the highest price ever paid for a painting at a U.S. art auction. “It’s been a wild ride.”

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