Rockwell Paintings Bring Windfalls – On Two Different Scales

There’s been a flurry of activity this week for the paintings of Stockbridge native Norman Rockwell. One picture was sold for eight figures, and another – though less valuable – is making a central Massachusetts school district very happy.

“Last chance – here it goes – and selling now, at 20 million dollars,” calls out the auctioneer, banging a gavel. “It’s yours.”

And with that, the 1957 Normal Rockwell painting “The Rookie” went from one anonymous owner to another, after an auction at Christie’s in New York fetched somewhat less than had been speculated – though well above the $600,000  it last sold for in 1987. “The Rookie” features several Red Sox players meeting a new recruit in their locker room. Jeremy Clowe with the Norman Rockwell Museum says the painting has been gaining popularity since the Sox 2004 World Series victory. The $20 million selling price, he says, is not surprising, given a resurgence in Rockwell’s value. The record for a Rockwell painting – $46 million – was paid in December for Saying Grace.

“There was a time when Rockwell, he didn’t command such a high price. Unfortunate for us, being a nonprofit, we are unable to compete with those selling prices,” Clowe says. “We can only hope that the work, the new owners will consider loaning them to us for a period of time.”

Clowe says the museum has displayed The Rookie in the past, and recently hosted a visit by Pittsfield native Sherman Safford – who was Rockwell’s model for the rookie player. Safford is now 75 and living in Rochester, New York.

And in another notable Rockwell sale this week – the World War II painting called “Willie Gillis in Convoy” just earned almost 2 million dollars for the schools of Gardner, Massachusetts. Mayor Mark Hawke says the painting had been donated to Gardner High School’s class of 1951 by the artist himself. It hung in the principal’s office until 2000.

“There was a concern it might be worth a lot of money and we shouldn’t just have it hanging in there,” Hawke says. “Because what if a student walked by and just as a joke, drew a mustache on Willie Gillis.”

Back then, the insurance estimate for the painting was $400,000. It spent 15 years in storage, until, Hawke says, administrators noticed that Rockwell’s work was bringing in big money. Hawke says the windfall from this week’s auction, run by Sotheby’s, will fund a foundation for Gardner schools. He says a few community members have criticized the city for selling off part of its history, but he says no one from Gardner was in the painting.

“Frankly the mission of the Gardner public school system is basically to educate the kids to the best degree possible, not to be some sort of a purveyor of fine art work,” he says. “We don’t have the proper means to maintain, control or secure a multi-million dollar painting.”

Hawke says Sotheby’s has offered to make a replica of the painting to hang in the Gardner schools.