Saturday, December 7, 2013

The $46 million Rockwell and other questions

Posted By on Sat, Dec 7, 2013 at 12:32 PM

click to enlarge Norman Rockwell's "Saying Grace," 1951, oil on canvas, 43 by 41 inches
  • Norman Rockwell's "Saying Grace," 1951, oil on canvas, 43 by 41 inches

Even Max Brantley, who says his favorite artwork is a scene of dogs playing poker, is wondering (from Honduras, Guatemala and who knows where tomorrow on vacation), "Did Alice buy the Rockwell?"

By Alice, of course, we mean Alice Walton, Arkansas's grandest collector of art and founder of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art up in what some would consider hinterlands, Bentonville, on the Ozark Plateau. 

click to enlarge Benton's "Still Life with Spring Flowers," oil and tempera on board, 29 by 20 1/2 inches
  • Benton's "Still Life with Spring Flowers," oil and tempera on board, 29 by 20 1/2 inches

By Rockwell we mean Norman Rockwell's 1951 painting "Saying Grace," of a grandmother and boy praying at a restaurant table shared with two staring young men. The painting, which Sotheby's estimated would sell for between $15  million  and $20 million  at auction, went for $46 million at the auction house's Dec. 4 American art sale. It was a record price for a Rockwell sold at auction, according to Sotheby's, which, naturally, made folks suspicious that Walton, the 2nd richest woman in America, bought it — that and the fact that Crystal Bridges brought a  traveling exhibition  of Rockwell's work to the museum last spring, which drew 121,000 people to the museum, surpassing all crowds at  previous stops. Maybe Walton thought that if folks like Rockwell that much, she better grab what Sotheby's calls a masterpiece, to go along with her other, more iconic, Rockwell, "Rosie the Riveter." (Walton bought "Rosie" from a private collector, so we don't know what she paid for it.)

Here's what the New York Times wrote about the bidding:

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. ... 

Who bought the 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.

click to enlarge MAXFIELD PARRISH - 1870 - 1966 - THE KNAVE OF HEARTS: THE SIX LITTLE INGREDIENTS - Parrish's "The Knave of Hearts: The Six Little Ingredients,"  1925, oil on board, 20 1/8 by 16 3/8 inches
  • MAXFIELD PARRISH1870 - 1966THE KNAVE OF HEARTS: THE SIX LITTLE INGREDIENTSParrish's "The Knave of Hearts: The Six Little Ingredients," 1925, oil on board, 20 1/8 by 16 3/8 inches

Unlike most folks, I can take or leave the Rockwell. His draftsmanship is amazing (look at how he's painted the view from the window of "Saying Grace"), but the magazine cover paintings' nostalgia for an all-white Christian America makes  me  uneasy. (On the other hand, I do love his painting of little Ruby Bridges being escorted to school in New Orleans, ambiguously named "The Problem We All Live With," a gouache sketch of which came up for auction in 2010. At the time, I  wrote that I hoped Alice  would buy it.) But it would make sense  that Walton would buy "Saying Grace."

It would also make sense that Walton bought Maxfield Parrish's "The Knave of Hearts: The Six Little Ingredients" if one thinks it significant that the painting,sold for $1.9 million, also went far beyond its estimate, ($250,000-$350,000), but somehow I don't think so (but what do I know?). More likely would be a sculpture by Paul Manship, "Indian Hunter and His Dog," which sold for $1.56 million (estimated at $300,000 to $500,000). Crystal Bridges has a wonderful Parrish, "The Lantern Bearers," painted in that rich Parrish blue, and the Manship's "Group of Bears" greets museum visitors walking the trail to the museum from the square. They could use some company.

I would like to think she bought a rather glorious Thomas Hart Benton, "Still Life with Spring Flowers," Georgia O'Keeffe's tiny "Blue Flower" and Arthur Dove's "Lattice and Awning." We will have to wait and see what shows up at the museum. See the Sotheby's auction results here.
click to enlarge O'Keeffe's "The Blue Flower," 1944, oil on board, 12 3/4 by 9 1/2 inches
  • O'Keeffe's "The Blue Flower," 1944, oil on board, 12 3/4 by 9 1/2 inches

click to enlarge Manship's "Indian Hunter and his Dog," 1926, bronze, - height: 21 inches (53.4 cm); length: 24 inches (61 cm)
  • Manship's "Indian Hunter and his Dog," 1926, bronze,height: 21 inches (53.4 cm); length: 24 inches (61 cm)

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