Excerpt from The New York Times: 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 on Wednesday morning for a total of nearly $57.8 million, about twice their high estimate.
The auction house’s York Avenue salesroom in Manhattan, filled with American art dealers and collectors, went dead quiet while a tense nine-and-a-half-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.
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, was expected to bring $6 million to $9 million but was snapped up for $8.45 million. 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, an American paintings dealer who said he bought it for a client. Mr. Lapham was one of only 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 different buildings in Troy, N.Y., and a church steeple in Vermont. The painting sold for $3.2 million with fees. It had been expected to fetch $3 million to $5 million. Asked why there was not more competition for the painting, Mr. Lapham replied, “It’s stylistically different,” referring to Rockwell’s translation of an old master painting.
Who bought the first two works remains a mystery. Sotheby’s isn’t saying, nor are the buyers. Among this country’s top Rockwell collectors are the filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, as well as the businessman H. Ross Perot and Alice L. Walton, the Walmart heiress. None could be spotted in the audience or in any of Sotheby’s skyboxes.
“We set an American art record,” said the seller, referring to the $46 million price tag of “Saying Grace,” which Sotheby’s was touting as the highest price ever paid for a painting at an American art auction. “It’s been a wild ride.”