Norman Rockwell Art Rises in Value, and His Museum Gets Priced Out

Norman Rockwell once confided to his youngest son: "Just once, I'd like for someone to tell me that they think Picasso is good, and that I am, too." In 1969, he donated 189 of his paintings to an organization in Stockbridge, Mass., and the Norman Rockwell Museum was born. The museum attracts 150,000 visitors a year, and its curators have fought to give the artist the critical consideration and respect that largely eluded him during his lifetime.Today, Rockwell still isn't mentioned alongside Picasso. The 830-page History of Modern Art doesn't mention the American painter: Elizabeth C. Mansfield, a New York University art history professor and author of that book, explains that while Rockwell's work is "certainly very interesting," it "does not engage the modernist aesthetic problems" that modern art addresses.

But the artist, who died in 1978, is slowly emerging from his kitschy purgatory of collectible plates, bells and figurines. An art-world reassessment is under way, thanks to a series of acclaimed traveling exhibitions sponsored by the museum, a doting Vanity Fair feature calling him one of America's "most underappreciated and misunderstood artists" and last fall's publication of Ron Schick's well-received book Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera.

A Favorite of Lucas and Spielberg

Chief curator and deputy director Stephanie Plunkett has fought hard for Rockwell's reputation, sponsoring traveling exhibitions here and abroad, and inviting leading scholars to comment on the work -- efforts that she says have "really increased consideration of his work." But it's not just the critics who are showing interest. Collectors are sending the prices of his paintings higher, too.

"Over the past 15 years, prices have truly skyrocketed," Plunkett says. In November 2006, Sotheby's sold Rockwell's Breaking Home Ties for $15.4 million, compared with a presale estimate of $4 million to $6 million. (The price also bested the previous record for a Rockwell work -- set just six months earlier -- by 67%.) Leading Rockwell collectors include George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who have agreed to lend their collections to the Smithsonian for an exhibition that begins in July.

Priced Out of Its Own Market

Over 40 years, the museum has grown to 740 Rockwells, acquired through purchases and donations. The first purchase was in 1975: a 1963 assignment for Look magazine called The Problem We All Live With, depicting Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, being escorted by U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans. The museum paid $35,000 for it.

Prices like that are ancient history. The most recent sale of a Rockwell original at Sotheby's came in December, when The Dough Boy and His Admirers sold for $662,500 -- more than four times the presale estimate.

Given the run-up, the Norman Rockwell Museum is undoubtedly sitting on a gold mine. (Plunkett declines to put a value on the collection.) But the escalation actually presents a challenge. "We've been priced out of our own market," Plunkett says. The museum can no longer acquire major original works. Its tremendous success in building Rockwell's presence has hurt its ability to build its own collection.

Unlike a private collector, the bargain prices the museum paid for key works in its early years do little to help the museum today. They're an illiquid asset because, under the ethical codes of the American Association of Museums and the American Association of Museum Directors, museums cannot sell off parts of their collections to fund operating expenses. (They can, however, sell artworks to acquire different pieces. But a museum tied to one artist doesn't benefit from that loophole.)

But what about all those Rockwell collectibles from the '70s and '80s? Unfortunately for your grandmother, the Rockwell bull market has left those behind, most likely because of their mass production and poor quality, says Tammy Kahn Fennell of VintageRareStuff.com. A lot of nine Rockwell plates, complete with original boxes and certificates of authenticity, recently sold on eBay for the princely sum of $12.12. A museum of Norman Rockwell memorabilia would have no trouble with prices like those.

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